“In a society which exalts the cult of efficiency, fitness and success, one which ignores the poor and dismisses ‘losers,’ we can witness by our lives to the truth of the words of Scripture: ‘When I am weak, then I am strong’ (2 Cor. 12:10).”
– Pope Francis, Apostolic Letter on the Year of Consecrated Life
Unbeknownst to most readers of my Catholic Exchange columns, I published a short book last October – just after my 30th birthday, as I prepared to return to Holy Resurrection Monastery to become a postulant. Shouting Through The Water was released online (at the address http://tiny.cc/sttwbook), as a free downloadable (PDF format) e-book – since it is an unusual work, very different from my other writings.
I have described Shouting Through The Water as “a book of words without songs” – both as a nod to Mendelssohn’s “Songs Without Words,” and because it first originated in the lyrics I had drafted for a planned music project in the punk/hardcore genre. That musical project never materialized, but it eventually became the basis for this stylistically (and visually) unusual book of verse.
Artistically, I took inspiration from the intense and confrontational punk rock songs I grew up on – for I could not adequately express the passion of my heart in any other way. But the thoughts and ideas are those of an aspiring monk: someone “seeking peace and pursuing it” (Ps. 34:15), after years of interior and outward conflict. This unique combination of style and subject matter was not a contrivance on my part, but something that emerged naturally over a period of several years.
I was originally reluctant to discuss the book in a Catholic Exchange column, thinking its aggressive style might be off-putting to readers of my other work. That is still possible – how many books written in all-capital-letters have you read before? – but on reflection I decided I ought to share it, because my reasons for writing and publishing the book go far beyond the experiences that provided its first impetus. What began as a personal outlet has taken on an aspect of social criticism and even philosophical reflection.
I write as a believer, of course; but I also write as someone whose post-conversion years continued to be full of quite ordinary struggles: various failures – sometimes self-generated – in love and work; as well as sickness, depression, and deep frustration. These are the struggles of many people; so I have tried, according to my own modest abilities, to write both for them and on their behalf, and especially for my own generation. This concern runs through the work, becoming more explicit near the end – as in this passage:
TO A NEW LOST GENERATION,
WELCOME TO A NEW WAR
YOU DON’T RECALL VOLUNTEERING FOR –
BUT NOW IT’S TIME TO GO, GET UP
AND GET YOURSELF TOGETHER
OUT OF FRAGMENTS YOU’VE ASSEMBLED
UNDERNEATH THE SHEET METAL
TO A NEW BEAT-DOWN GENERATION,
REACHING UP TO SCRAWL SOMETHING
ACROSS A PAPER SKY –
AND IT’S POETIC, EVEN IF
THE GRAVITY’S AGAINST IT
GETTING NOTICED IN THIS LIFE
AMID THE DIMMING OF THE LIGHTS
FOR THOSE WHO DIED IN THEIR OWN TRENCHES,
LOST THE FIGHT AGAINST THEMSELVES
FOUGHT AND DIED IN THEIR OWN WAR –
I KNOW THEY ARE NOT MARTYRS,
NOT INNOCENT VICTIMS,
BUT THERE IS STILL A WAY IN WHICH
THEY LOOK LIKE CASUALTIES TO ME
I have long been concerned over the direction of my generation – a concern that predates my Christian faith, but which has been intensified by it. Yet my concern is not simply the armchair-moralism of someone who has the correct “list of regulations” and feels obliged to correct others from a distance. The problems that concern me the most – those that have often laid waste to the inner lives of my contemporaries – are recognizable in my own life. But that is precisely why I feel able, and even duty-bound, to name them.
In particular, I am concerned about what I have already described – in a widely-circulated past column – as the “combination of extreme intensity and instability” in modern life, and especially the lives of young people in the contemporary West. We have lived with a huge amount of emotional investment; but this intensity has not been matched by a comparable degree of continuity and commitment.
In love and work, in our personal pursuits and even our friendships, we live a restless and unsettled existence – even if this is not our preference, but simply a way of life we find ourselves thrown into. It is almost as if we were making up for a lack of continuity in our lives, by investing ourselves as passionately as possible in those bonds which may prove to be most impermanent. What we lack in permanence and duration, we often make up for in intensity – and this, again, is often not a conscious choice, but a matter of being swept along by the current of modern Western culture.
Thus, there is often an episodic or serial character to our lives: what occupies us the most at a given moment may well be gone by the same time next year. And this combination of instability and intensity produces a myriad of quiet tragedies – and many more lingering frustrations and disappointments – as each year’s draught of life becomes the next year’s bitter aftertaste. This is especially true of our romantic relationships; but the pattern plays out elsewhere: wherever there is the prospect either of a self-giving commitment, or the painful break after a promising start.
What my generation knows about love, it knows largely from watching it die. And this was the source of my hastily-scrawled observation, which has made it into my book almost unchanged:
HOW LOVE FAILS, HOW IT DERAILS –
IN ONE SENSE WE KNOW ALL ABOUT THIS
FROM OUR ILL-ADVISED TRIALS AND TERRIBLE ERRORS,
OUTDOING PAST GENERATIONS WITH OUR FAILURES – BUT –
WHAT LOVE MEANS, WHAT ARE HUMAN BEINGS –
WE’RE IN THE DARK THERE, PATHETICALLY IGNORANT
HAVING THROWN OUT WHAT WAS REASONED OR REVEALED –
STARTING FROM NOTHING, AND LEARNING NOTHING
FROM OUR MISTAKES – HEARTS THAT WE BREAK
ACTING LIKE IT’S JUST THE LUCK OF THE DRAW –
TRIAL AND ERROR, A LIFE OF EXPERIMENTS –
AREN’T YOU GLAD TO BE SOMEONE’S “LEARNING EXPERIENCE”?
Or, to put it more bluntly:
LEARN TO KISS,
LEARN TO SMILE,
SAY I LOVE YOU –
FOR A WHILE …
HAS ALREADY HEARD THE ONE
ABOUT HOW THEY’RE THE BEST –
EXCEPT FOR WHOEVER’S NEXT
This phenomenon, a life of sadly fleeting intensities, is one I know from both observation and experience. I never wanted to be part of a culture of impermanence, where everything – even love – regularly proceeds by a heartbreaking form of trial-and-error. But I was as responsible as anyone else, for the fact that I did end up there.
And one cannot get out of that cycle simply by wanting out. You must make a choice that breaks the pattern. This often becomes possible precisely when we “hit bottom,” when we are at our lowest ebb and no longer know how to go on. In that moment we may perhaps glimpse, and begin to pursue, a more profound desire than those superficial longings which – whether or not they were licit in themselves – have become a distraction from our true calling.
Although its composition – over a long period of time – was a cathartic experience, spurred by many painful events, I did not write Shouting Through The Water as a testament to my own suffering or as a form of mere “venting.” A work of that kind would have little or no value to me or others. It is, however, a testament to what one may experience and find in the midst of suffering.
Faith and experience have shown me that times of crisis are also times of grace – a fact that remains true whether or not we realize it, and certainly regardless of whether we are as receptive to grace as we ought to be. For the grace of God is precisely that which is given prior to any request on our part, and whose nature as a “free gift” implies no absolute precondition in the recipient except that which grace itself has already created.
Grace is encountered when you discover a strength that you partake of, but which is not yours; and a stillness, likewise, that is within you but is not – and could not possibly be – your own possession or achievement. It is encountered when life’s apparent chaos is perceived as part of a higher and mysterious order, in which we can trust even after our attempts at understanding have failed.
Still, it is difficult to portray, or even describe, the experience of grace-in-suffering: one can only occasionally articulate the essence of the struggle when it is going on; but when the external storms have passed, we may be unable or unwilling to revisit the experiences so as to put them into words. And so we cannot even communicate the suffering itself – let alone that mysterious factor that makes the experience more than any possible sum of its parts, and which makes it even a kind of revelation.
I admire the more conventionally “literary” forms of poetry (and have worked in them myself). But I could only do justice to my experiences of grace, and the life-settings in which they occurred, through an artistic idiom of more immediacy and force: the brutalist-aesthetic of punk and hardcore music, an artform once borne of youthful rebellion but now possessing – for many of us – a deeper significance. I had to be able to shout such thoughts, on the page:
IT’S NEVER OVER –
THERE’S NEVER CLOSURE –
YOU NEVER RESOLVE IT,
NEVER SOLVE IT –
NEVER FORGET IT, NEVER
QUITE LET IT GO –
YOU KEEP ASKING
BUT YOU NEVER KNOW . . .
But with that same idiom, I could convey the experience of discovering a transcendent strength and confidence – not in one’s self, or any finite reality – precisely in the midst of such upheavals:
WELL I GOT SOBER, AND I GOT OVER
WHAT I HAD TO GET OVER
I LIVE ON THE OUTSIDE, AND I WALK WITH A CRUTCH
BUT WELL ENOUGH
YOU CAN FIND ME IN SOLITUDE, WHERE I WAS SENT
WHERE I BELONG
INSIDE THE SILENCE THAT ALREADY FILLS
EVERYTHING THAT IS …
WHERE WE OWN NOTHING, ENVY NOTHING, HOLD TO NOTHING
AND THERE IS ONLY
THAT ETERNAL PERFECT CIRCLE
THAT HOLDS US
With the language of confrontation, outburst, and declamation – as well as that of faith and love – I have tried to tell my story of strength-in-weakness. The weakness is mine; the strength, though I had to find it within, belongs properly to God: “Saving truth, life, light, and holiness are not of us, though they must be in us … The gift of [divine] life is in us, as truly as it is not of us” (Bl. John Henry Newman). I have used strong words, to make that fact come through.
Shouting Through The Water is available as a free download at http://tiny.cc/sttwbook. An accompanying Author’s Statement – containing reflections not found in this column – can be read at http://tiny.cc/sttwas.