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Good Letters

“My church and my country could use a little mercy now,
As they sink into a poisoned pit it’s going to take forever to climb out.
They carry the weight of the faithful who follow them down.
I love my church and country, they could use some mercy now.”

                  -Mary Gauthier, “Mercy Now”

I am, by disposition, a hopeful pessimist, searching for occasions of grace while not expecting to find any, like a lost hiker scouring the woods for campfires in the deepening twilight. You’d think I’d have learned by now to be grateful for what I have and stop looking. Instead, I grumble through unhelpful conversations others wisely quit, reluctantly ante up for the next hand though I can’t trust the dealer, and tend a guttering candle of loyalty for institutions that have long since proven themselves corrupt. As a colleague once described his second marriage, “I’m the embodied triumph of hope over experience.”

As a straight white male, however, I realize this places me at the bullseye of intersectionality, that analytic lens used to expose interlocking systems of power keeping the boots of the privileged (that would be me) on the necks of the marginalized. I’m called coward, enabler, guilty bystander. No doubt that’s truer than I care to admit, and neither my explicit critiques of institutionalized inequality nor my meager attempts at redress have bent the arc of history a micron towards its promised rendezvous with justice. I trust I will be judged accordingly. Perhaps I’m doomed to remain the dirty rotten system’s dupe, shill, and knowing collaborator until I die. Perhaps I’m feeling the mounting weight of my years. 

On top of this baseline bourgeois regret, there’s a deeper melancholy that slithers from its cage to bite me as autumn goes by. This December finds me already in what promises to be a long winter of discontent, with no sun of York on stage to make it glorious summer. (If you’re fumbling for the reference, it’s the opening lines of Shakespeare’s Richard III, and you’ll remember how that turned out.) The irritant nodes of my chronic unease are largely the same, but their sins loom larger, their festering wounds harder to ignore. 

Cradle Catholics like me get used to disappointment early on. Many come to see the Church the way a dirt farmer looks at the weather: something you’re never going to change, so you better adapt or move on. But it’s awfully hard to adapt to the unfolding sexual abuse catastrophe. I grieve for the survivors and can’t blame those who’ve left or perch on the fence, waiting for the thud of the next dropped shoe. The Catholic theologian, Romano Guardini, was spot-on when he wrote that the Church itself is the cross on which Jesus is crucified.   

Yet here I stand, less sure than usual that I can do no other. I still go to mass with my wife and parishioners from forty different countries, remembering a gathered body larger than its bishops. For all my disappointment with, grief over, and rage toward the visible Church, “Catholic” remains my identity, not one denomination among many. I know once-committed Catholics who’ve seen past that distinction and shook the misogynist and clericalist dust from their sandals, and I recognize the marks of catholicity (from kata holon, “according to the whole”) in many other church communities, but it’s not my time. Not yet. Nor is it clear where I would go and what I might do with other institutions in my life that are equally broken. 

I remain, for instance, a US citizen. Having been raised American, and thoroughly catechized by teachers, books, and electronic entertainment, it took me years to unlearn dogmas like national exceptionalism and myths like the rugged individual bootstrapping himself toward the American Dream. I’m well aware that many Americans find insufficient patriotism a far greater sin than impiety, so I’ll tread lightly here, offering a story rather than an argument. 

Over the past three decades, I’ve worked off and on with Native American children in various capacities. I’ve served as an indigenous child health advocate on committees, site visits, international meetings, and in Capitol Hill offices and committee rooms. Along the way, I have received infinitely more from my Native friends, families, and patients than I could ever give. 

But those gifts come at a cost. The more I saw, learned, and read, the further my faith in America crumbled away. I thought I knew the long, ugly history of US-indigenous relations. I imagined reconciliation and restitution would require living up to America’s core ideals of liberty, justice, and equality. I learned instead that that ugliness reflected other, carefully effaced core national values as yet unacknowledged. Indeed, there are powerful reasons for people like me to not acknowledge them. As for the much harder work of truth and conciliation (“reconciliation” implies our peoples were at one time a concilium, a gathering of friends), I increasingly doubt Americans share the necessary moral resources. Yet here I am, still signing petitions and voting, not out of faith in the system, but as attempts at harm reduction and in solidarity with those that system leaves out.    

I could say much more on that, but this is not the time. We have, after all, entered the season of Advent: four Sundays of longing for a mystery that is both “now” and “not yet.” It’s the Church’s recurring winter of discontent, marked by lighting candles against the gathering darkness. For St. Augustine, desire – which he defined as rerum absentium concupiscentia, “longing for absent things” – was a key to salvation.  To desire something requires its absence – whether actual or perceived – and our first, most important desire is for God. As worthy desires follow from that perceived absence, the road to God is paved with discontent, failure, and dashed expectations. Augustine sums it up in Confessions, “You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” Nothing short of God will satisfy.  

I don’t know how things will go for my broken Church and divided country. I doubt I’ll live long enough to get even a provisional answer. This, however, I can do: mourn for the grievously wounded, search for campfires in the appalling darkness, and learn, perhaps, in this season of Advent to light candles of my own.  

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The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Written by: Brian Volck

Brian Volck is a pediatrician who received his undergraduate degree in English Literature and his MD from Washington University in St. Louis and his MFA in creative writing from Seattle Pacific University. He is the author of a poetry collection, Flesh Becomes Word, and a memoir, Attending Others: A Doctor’s Education in Bodies and Words. His essays, poetry, and reviews have appeared in various periodicals and journals, including DoubleTake, Health Affairs, and Image. He provides clinical care in Maryland and on the Navajo Nation and is working on a book on the Navajo, history, and health.

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