Morgan Meis blogs about philosophy and art criticism at The Smart Set. His essay “Conversion” in Image Issue 80 takes an oblique approach to his coming into the Catholic Church–it’s at least as much a portrait of the elderly Sri Lankan nun who catechized him as it is a personal essay.
Image: You are a young westerner, a blogger, an intellectual. Why did you connect with Sister Lidwina rather than someone who spoke your language, literally and figuratively? Did it have to be that way?
Morgan Meis: While I was in Sri Lanka, I became ready to surrender to God. I hope that doesn’t sound like I knew exactly what that meant. I didn’t know. But I knew that that is what I wanted and needed to do. I’m still not entirely sure what the hell I’ve gotten myself into. But I needed to surrender to God. I felt, personally, that surrendering to God isn’t about finding the “right” person or the most “comfortable” church. I didn’t want to reinvent religion. I was pounding on the door and I wanted to be let in. I didn’t come with a list of what church had to look like. I came more or less ready to do what I was supposed to do. Sister Lidwina was interested in grabbing me by the scruff of the neck and getting me in the goddamn church. I didn’t need a friend or a life coach, after all. Sister Lidwina did not care what I thought about philosophy or whether I agreed with Clement Greenberg about the essential flatness of painting. Her not caring about those things made it easy for me to focus on what she was actually giving me. I needed the sacraments, straight up, no chaser. She was the lady for me.
Image: You don’t tell us why you were in Sri Lanka or much about what your journey toward the church was like before you came there; you tell us only a little about your motives and what was attracting you, but you tell us a lot about what happens in the present, as you are preparing for baptism. Did you consider trying to include more expositional material in the essay? Why did you decide against it?
MM: I figure that if a person needs a tortuous explanation of the experiences and feelings that lead one to God, that person has never had the feelings and experiences that lead one to God. So, there’s nothing I can say or write that will give that person such feelings and experiences. For someone who has had the feelings and experiences, nothing I could write about it is necessary. They know what I am talking about. So, I felt like it was best to write “in the present,” as you say. I figured that if I could make the present present, I’d have accomplished a little something. Also, there is so much crap written about spiritual journeys that it gave me fear. Sometimes, fear is a good thing.
There’s a pretty good medieval poet by the name of Dante who, to my thinking, set the standard in these matters of spiritual writing. Dante said that he’d found himself, midway through the journey of life, in a dark wood. It is hard to tell the nature of that wood, Dante said. He called it “savage,” “dense,” and “harsh.” And that’s about all Dante reveals in regards to his spiritual crisis. He moves on to recount the “other things I saw.” It is like the little reminder of his own conversion moment that Pascal wove into the lining of his cloak. He put it in his cloak and he moved on. It was between him and God.
Image: What sort of reaction have you received from readers based on other pieces you’ve published that have revealed your turn toward religion? Has the process of going public about this been difficult for you?
MM: I’ll tell you something funny. No one cares. If I write an essay that gets linked at Arts and Letters Daily, for instance, I’ll get a flood of emails. I’ll get people scolding me for forgetting exactly how many great-aunts Proust lived with in Combray or what is the proper way to accent the name Péter Nádas. Then I finally screw up the nerve to write a piece saying, essentially, I believe that Christ really did die on the cross for our sins, that this shit is not a joke, that we have access to the very soul and purpose of the world and that we are called to live in the tragi-comic aftermath of that terrible and beautiful event…and the response is, nothing. Then I think to myself, how could it be otherwise? This is how it must be.
I was grateful, to be honest, when a very close friend of mine got angry and upset when I told him I was getting baptized. We had a huge crisis in our friendship about it. He couldn’t believe what I was doing. He thought I’d gone crazy and that we wouldn’t be able to be friends anymore (he is a convinced atheist, more or less in the Dawkins camp). In retrospect, it was a sign of understanding and respect. He had the decency to recognize that I wasn’t just joining a new club or switching supermarkets. He understood that the church is not a lifestyle. Our friendship is deeper today for that crisis.
Image: Do you think that the western religious traditions—which have, after all, a rich philosophical tradition—can play an important role in intellectual discourse today?
MM: Yes. I’ll tell you this. Many of my friends and colleagues are inside the academy. And the questions of fides et ratio are very much alive in the academy today. A theologian like Stanley Hauerwas is read very seriously by otherwise “secular” philosophers. There is a sense that, after all this “progress,” the essential questions of faith don’t go away. Or look at the literary scene. I don’t know if Zadie Smith practices a religion. But she writes essays that ask questions like “how are we to live?” She is thinking right there in the center of the western religious tradition. These are ad hoc examples. But I think they bespeak a condition. It is a wasteland out there, as a Christian writer once observed. The thirsty ones are going to come looking for water.
I think of what Walker Percy once said in an interview about his Catholicism and whether it is still relevant in the “scientific age.” Percy said, “This life is too much trouble, far too strange, to arrive at the end of it and then to be asked what you make of it and have to answer ‘scientific humanism.’ That won’t do. A poor show. Life is a mystery, love is a delight. Therefore I take it as axiomatic that one should settle for nothing less than the infinite mystery and the infinite delight, i.e. God. In fact I demand it. I refuse to settle for anything less. I don’t see why anyone should settle for less than Jacob, who actually grabbed a hold of God and would not let go until God identified himself and blessed him.” I am with Mr. Percy on that, as with most other things.
Image: Image was founded in 1989, when the culture wars were still raging. You were probably in grade school then. The journal’s founders saw a need for a venue that would demonstrate that art and faith were still vitally connected—this at a time when they seemed to be at a distant remove. Perhaps that no longer needs proving. What purpose do you think a journal like Image serves now, if any?
MM: I was in high school, actually. But my own humble opinion is that Image serves today the same need that it served back then. I’m not sure it is about proving that art and faith are still vitally connected as much as showing it. The proposition can’t ever be proven, after all. It can only be demonstrated in acts of art and faith, over and over again. It is made manifest by the production of works of art and literature that breathe of the spirit. And that, I think, is what Image has been doing for twenty-five years and counting. This kind of “proof” is a fragile thing. It will never convince anyone who seeks not to be convinced. It will never bowl anyone over. But the material to be found in Image is an incredible source of nourishment for anyone even a tiny bit suspicious that art and faith might have something to do with one another. As a wise man with the initials G.W. once wrote (and I’m not talking about George Washington), “At a time when the model of Enlightenment rationalism is crumbling under the weight of postmodern cynicism and nihilism, the religious imagination can speak meaningfully into the void.” Amen to that. That Image has been a refuge for the void-speakers for twenty-five years is a civilizational accomplishment as great as any other of which I’m aware. And here’s to the next twenty-five years of shouting meaning into the glorious void.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.