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Going Gray

I’ve been observing with some tenderness the ways in which my friends are going gray. One at the temples, another with ethereal opal strands, a third with magnificent waves of peppery black. My younger brother started graying in his twenties. They came in patchy at first: a sideburn, a cowlick, a shock of white on the back of his head. A decade later, the gray has established itself with authority. My husband, whose sandy brown hair makes a less obvious contrast to gray, is manifesting the passage of time in his eyebrows, which have begun to grow gangly and askew in that unmistakable old-man way. 

When I was young, the women around me talked about the appearance of gray hairs with the same repulsed urgency I use when reporting cockroach sightings to the exterminator. Grays were dreaded indicators of mortality, confirmations of the ways we’re beholden to time. Such antipathy always confused me, though: gray seemed mysterious and dignified, the undisputed coif of choice for writers and lighthouse-keepers and lupine-planters. Not long after the pandemic’s first apocalyptic spring, I began to notice my own gray hairs emerge, then multiply. One morning I knelt to tie my oldest daughter’s shoes, and she exclaimed with mischievous glee that the top of my head was speckled with white. The sudden ingression of these unbidden strands seemed, for all intents and purposes, right and just. Death was doing its thing on the world. The hair was my own memento mori, a cross of ashes threaded onto my body. Reminders of death’s nearness were everywhere, and they were almost uniformly terrifying. But these slivers of gray forecasted my someday-death in a different voice: they felt beautiful, familiar, like the whisper of a confidant. Here, it seemed, was the companion to St. Francis’s Sister Death. I could wear fragility like a crown.

These slivers of gray forecasted my someday-death in a different voice: they felt beautiful, familiar, like the whisper of a confidant.

November is the month of mortality—the month of saints and souls. God may remain confoundingly hidden, but saints leave trails of matter: bones and teeth and corpses that miraculously refuse to decompose, catacombed skeletons adorned with jewels, vials of blood and locks of hair, tunics and tilmas and roses out of season, and things stranger still—severed heads and eyeballs on a plate and candles that heal throat ailments. It’s little wonder that these November days give way to dark Advent longing for God enfleshed.

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An old friend, now ordained, sent us a second-class relic of Alberto Hurtado, Chile’s beloved saint of the poor. The tiny square of black cassock is laminated onto a holy card the size of a sugar packet. The relic lives on the makeshift altar in our Useless Wall Alcove, a distinctive feature of early 2000s-era home construction built to contain faux-Tuscan vases filled with decorative sticks. Alberto Hurtado’s cassock fragment is joined by the artifacts of fellow faithful departed: a soft-focus portrait of my grandmother as a young woman, my great-grandmother staring down the camera with Depression-era severity, my husband’s late mother cradling him at his baptism. My great aunts—their pictures are there, too—lived in a small Midwestern brick house whose contents were roughly 80 percent holy cards. You couldn’t open a cookbook without somebody’s funeral card falling out. I have since learned that if you live in a place long enough, it’s only a matter of time before the dead start making their homes between the pages of books, wedging themselves into the corners of picture frames, fastening themselves to the side of the refrigerator. 

My middle daughter, age five, talks about death with the macabre familiarity of a mystic. After a driveway visit with our 91-year-old neighbor, Lucy asked when my face would be covered in lines like Mr. Ed’s. Then she asked me when I’ll die. Once I took a video in which I asked her ordinary questions, hoping to create a charming artifact of her innocent early years.

“What’s your favorite food?” I asked.

“Skeleton bones,” she responded, cackling.

November’s saints invite us to embrace the body as the site of companionship.

These days I find myself looking down at my hands with their veins like dried riverbeds, like distant satellite images of possible planetary water. I look in the mirror at my forehead with its permanent creases, evidence of too much squinting and smiling and furrowing. I sweep back my scattering of gray hairs. It feels like such a different thing, to watch the passage of years written on my body.

Contento, Señor, contento,” Alberto Hurtado was known to say, even as pancreatic cancer was ending his life.  “I’m content, Lord. I’m content.” Hurtado, a Jesuit, seemed to have embraced that elusive Ignatian spiritual discipline of indifference, a non-defensive vulnerability to the will of God and to reality. Paradoxically, his practiced contentment made him more, not less, committed to justice, which he sought in corporal—which is to say, bodily—works of mercy among those whose own bodies society had deemed most expendable. Maybe it’s contentment I’m seeking when I marvel at the graying hair of the people with whom I was once young. Sanctity is often miscast as the ascetic subordination of our fallible, decaying bodies to the eternity of the soul, as if the one can be extracted from the other. But November’s saints invite us, I think, to embrace the body as the site of companionship: with one another, with time, with God. Maybe that’s what relics are; their bones speak to our bones, their flesh to our flesh. In the communion of saints, the dead keep company with one another. In funeral programs and fragments of cloth and steadily graying hair, they keep us company, too. 

Issue: 

Issue Discussion Guide — November 2021

With every monthly issue, we provide a free discussion guide to use for one or more of our feature articles to facilitate conversations in your classroom, parish, reading group, or Commonweal Local Community. In this month's guide, we draw upon the themes raised by our special issue on “The Varieties of Religious Community Today.”  

To download a PDF version of this month's discussion guide, click here. For access to all past issue discussion guides, visit cwlmag.org/discuss.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

1. In what ways have communities—family, friends, your parish, other members of the Church—mediated your individual religious practice?

 

2. Have you ever spent time in a community of the sort described in these pieces: a religious order, a lay ecclesial movement, or a house of hospitality? What was your experience like?

 

3. What aspects or charisms of these communities resonate with your own experiences of religion?

 

4. How should the Church seek to be a “contrast community,” distinguishing itself from mainstream society or secular power by its way of life? Is “contrast” the right way to think about the Church’s position in the world? What might others be?

 

5. Many of these groups seek to balance work with prayer, and community life with solitude. What can we learn from their process of negotiating between ora et labora, the collective and the individual?

 

6. How should religious communities address declining numbers? In what ways might they be adaptive, welcoming new ways of worship and new definitions of membership?

 

7. Feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, practicing hospitality, advocating for justice: all of these communities, to different degrees, emphasize service to poor and marginalized people. Why do you think service is important to the lives of these communities? How can we foster this kind of care for vulnerable people in our own communities, religious or otherwise?

SUGGESTIONS FOR FURTHER READING

For even more discussion materials, check out our Conversation Starter Series.

Issue: 

A Spirit of Abundance

 

Editors’ Note:  We’ve devoted a set of articles to examining Catholic religious communities today. Despite the impressive variety of these communities, some common themes emerge: the importance of a shared prayer life; the difficulty of adapting to new circumstances; the relationship of community to place. To read all the articles, see the entire collection, The Varieties of Religious Community Today.

“Welcome home.” This is the greeting all visitors receive at Bethlehem Farm, a Catholic intentional community dedicated to service, hospitality, and simple living. As I arrive at the community’s forty-seven-acre homestead atop a mountain in rural West Virginia, the community members pause their work to greet me with a hug. It’s June 2021, a year into the pandemic, and a hug, especially from a stranger, still feels like something from a bygone era.

The Bethlehem Farm community consists of twelve long-term members, called Caretakers, who live communally on the homestead—once a Catholic Worker farm—where they grow their own food, teach sustainable ways of living, and serve their neighbors by doing low-cost home repair. Volunteers also live on the farm, some for a week as part of a high-school or college service trip, others for a longer period of time as one of the “Summer Servants.” With four cornerstones of living—service, prayer, simplicity, and community—the Caretakers of Bethlehem Farm seek to live the Gospel in every part of life. They commit to being radically accepting toward one another, gentle toward creation, and generous in their service.

In its vision statement, Bethlehem Farm calls itself a “contrast community”—borrowing Cardinal Avery Dulles’s concept of a “contrast society.” Dulles wrote that the first such community—the disciples—was “intended to attract attention.” Moreover, “it had a mission to remind the rest of the people of the transcendent value of the Kingdom of God, to which the disciples bore witness. It was therefore important for them to adopt a manner of life that would make no sense apart from their intense personal faith in God’s providence and his fidelity to his promises.”

What is the contrast Bethlehem Farm wishes to draw? How does it intend to be different from the rest of society? What are people looking for when they come to a place like this, and do they find it? More than anything, I wanted to know: Is an intentional community like Bethlehem Farm actually a sustainable model of community life that more Catholics should emulate?

 

On most days, the community gathers at 7:30 a.m. for morning prayer in the main residence—a two-story lodge with a big common area and fifteen dormitory-style rooms. With comfortably worn couches, board games, a couple of guitars, and lots of books, it resembles nothing so much as a summer camp. On the walls are an image of Óscar Romero, crosses of different sizes and styles, posters about solar power and invasive mining practices, and a hand-drawn cardboard sign with the words “Be Gentle.” The bookshelves contain hymnals, encyclicals, books on prayer and spirituality, but also novels and children’s picture books.

People begin to trickle in—the Caretakers, the volunteers, and a family staying on the farm for a retreat. It’s Wednesday, the day the community holds a Eucharistic service. Designated a pious house by the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, Bethlehem Farm is permitted to conduct the service without a priest. Colleen, one of the community’s founders, leads the service. She and her husband, Eric, started Bethlehem Farm in 2005, and they live in the community with their children, who are playing around us as the service begins. As we sing “All Are Welcome,” we can hear the chickens clucking just outside.

 

Colleen and Eric, two of the Caretakers at Bethlehem Farm (Pearson Ripley)

After the service, Colleen assigns morning chores. Some Caretakers and volunteers prepare breakfast; others load up trucks for visits to construction sites; a few work in the garden. I head to the garden, where a friendly volunteer who has just graduated from high school shows me how to harvest garlic. She gently corrects me when I pull the bulbs up too hard.

The breakfast bell rings, and everyone gathers around tables in the common area. The community tries to eat food produced locally. They grow as much of their own food as possible, and what they can’t grow themselves they try to obtain from other local farmers. Of course, that isn’t always possible; I do see a few Kroger labels. People eat heartily here, sometimes going up for seconds, to fuel a long day of physical work.

 

Before arriving at the farm, I spoke with a few community members about their sustainable practices and community rules. Bethlehem Farm uses sawdust toilets: over time, “humanure” decomposes into compost and is used to fertilize the community’s garden. (“It just makes so much sense,” Eric tells me.) To save water, community members limit themselves to two showers a week. Caretakers, volunteers, and visitors are expected to dress modestly and simply, without makeup. Cell phones are permitted for Caretakers and long-term volunteers, but not weeklong volunteers, and are generally not used during the day. (When I asked for the WiFi password upon arrival, I discovered that the router is switched off until 6 p.m.)

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Tori, a Caretaker from California who joined the community after graduating from college in 2019, tells me that her family “doesn’t really get why I poop in a bucket.” Part of the gardening team, she explains the community’s food practices. They don’t use any pesticides in the gardens, and they prioritize the renewability of the soil and use water carefully. She breaks into a smile as she tells me about the quiet of the garden, “where you can marvel at the soil moving and plants growing.” (“Weeds, they’re so incredible,” she adds.) I ask if the work contributes to her prayer life. “I’m not very good at praying,” she says, but “right after God makes a garden, he makes us. We are earth people, and what we eat and grow becomes us.” It matters, she says, that her work sustains people she is called to love: “Praying before a meal has meaning when it was your sacrifice in the garden.”

Molly, a Caretaker and one of the house managers, tells me about the ethos of work at the community. She is usually the person who plans the community’s meals and does the shopping. Much of her job, she tells me, involves deciding “how we use our purchasing power well and how we can feed our bodies well.” She says she enjoys teaching high-school and college volunteers how to cook and clean—that is, how to take care of each other. When I ask her about the relationship between work and prayer, she tells me, “We want to get a lot done for homeowners [on construction sites] and grow great food and minister to people. But there’s also a lot of care for ourselves and one another. There’s something holy in the work itself.”

 

After breakfast, Colleen gives assignments for the workday. I’ll be going to one of the home-repair sites. I pile into a pickup truck with two volunteers and two Caretakers, Raine and Tori, to drive down the mountain, on dirt roads with few guardrails, to a small, worn-down house. The homeowner, Margaret, is eighty years old and lives alone. Raine tells me that when they began working on the house a few weeks ago, the floor in the front of the house was so rotted out that it “felt like a trampoline.” The steps from the front door to the driveway had fallen apart, too.

Margaret is one of dozens of local homeowners whom Bethlehem Farm serves every year. The community provides at-cost home repair to those who otherwise might not be able to afford it. Bethlehem Farm acts as a sort of microbank, allowing homeowners to reimburse them for the cost of supplies at a rate as low as $20 a month. Recently, a grant from the Wheaton Franciscan Sisters has allowed the farm to purchase environmentally sustainable materials, which tend to be more expensive, while still charging homeowners the lower price. 

Raine and I take on the stairs, and as I dig holes for the posts, I ask what brought her to Bethlehem Farm. At thirty-four-years old, she’s about in the middle of the age range for Caretakers. 

“I grew up Catholic, but I felt pretty distant from my faith,” she says. “I wondered if there was more to being Catholic than going to church and then forgetting about it the rest of the week.” She was drawn to Bethlehem Farm because of its emphasis on sustainability and social justice, but particularly by the four cornerstones of simplicity, community, service, and prayer. “I wanted to get back to basics. I wanted to know what was the most important thing about being human.” She tells me she has struggled with anxiety and depression for most of her life, and that when she first joined the community, it was difficult to leave her room on some days. But the community supported her and let her take the time she needed. “I’ve grown a lot since I came to Bethlehem Farm,” Raine tells me. “It’s the best decision I’ve ever made.”

Pat, a Caretaker in his early twenties, had told me something similar the night before. “There’s a lot of hurt and dissatisfaction with mainstream culture,” he said. Bethlehem Farm was “a place to live counter-culturally, to foster something I didn’t know I was looking for.” 

“There’s something holy in the work itself.”

We stop for a break when Raine realizes that the wood we’re using for the stairs is warped, and we’ll have to measure and dig again. I take a few minutes to talk with Margaret, who has lived in this house for forty-eight years. One of eight children, she was raised by her mother after her father died in a logging accident. They were poor, and she tells me without hesitation that she’s “had a hard life.” In the past few years, she and her family members have often attended Bethlehem Farm’s community nights, when the broader West Virginia community is invited to the farm for dinner.

I had been skeptical when Caretakers told me that Bethlehem Farm, whose members are mostly non-locals from relatively privileged backgrounds, had integrated well into the local community. The town of Alderson is home to about 1,100 people, more than a quarter of whom live under the poverty line (compared with 10.5 percent nationally). The town is known for its spectacular multi-day Fourth of July celebration. For a brief time in the mid-2000s, the national media became interested in Alderson’s women’s prison, where Martha Stewart was serving a five-month sentence for felony conspiracy. But otherwise, the area that Bethlehem Farm serves—Summers, Monroe, and Greenbrier counties—is a region that the rest of the country tends to stereotype as backward or, at best, “left behind.” 

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The Caretakers make a point of educating themselves and their visitors about the region, especially its history of exploitation by extractive industries like mining and logging. These industries have been both the primary sources of employment for the region and the chief perpetrators of its poverty and environmental damage. The Bethlehem Farm website lists resources for volunteers to learn about Appalachia, and prominently features two lists of “books you should read instead of Hillbilly Elegy.” 

I talked with one of the Caretakers, Gemma, about Appalachia and Bethlehem Farm’s place in it as she organized the farm’s construction-supply closet. She told me that she came to Bethlehem Farm because she “gravitated toward people invested in being Catholic and making their lives look different because they’re Catholic.” She was familiar with “a bougie Whole Foods kind of sustainability,” but the Caretakers of Bethlehem Farm had a different brand of sustainability—one that borrows a lot from Appalachians: “There are a lot of people here who value growing their own food and take pride in that because it’s traditional. They know how to do things with their hands. So much of the culture here is self-sufficiency and homesteading, so we do kind of fit in with that.”

 

Every Thursday evening after dinner, the community gathers for a “covenant meeting.” Community members agree to abide by the Covenant of Cooperation, a set of guidelines for how they should communicate with each other. This involves some familiar techniques for conflict resolution. Anyone who has a problem with another community member must discuss it directly with that person rather than complain to others. The use of “I statements” is encouraged. Everyone should take each other’s words at face value—never assuming hidden intent—and, in turn, everyone is encouraged to be honest about their intentions and needs. What makes such trust and truthfulness possible is, fundamentally, a “spirit of abundance.” In the words of the Covenant: 

I want a cooperative relationship with you. I will act in this relationship on the assumption that there will be enough of what we really need to grow, solve our problems, support each other’s deepest needs, and participate in the building of God’s empowering life between us…. Cooperation is part of the Good News.

At covenant meetings, members use the Covenant of Cooperation to share their experiences of the week, to nurture their own spiritual growth, and to resolve conflicts. I was asked not to attend the weekly meeting, since these discussions can be quite personal.

Steve, a friendly and energetic Caretaker in his sixties, spoke with me about the meetings and community life more generally. Before he joined, he said, he “couldn’t imagine that [he] would be in an intentional community.” Part of his process of “discernment,” as he put it, was learning what it really meant to be in community. At first it was an adjustment to plan his life around people who weren’t family or close friends. But Bethlehem Farm is “a community that’s more open than some family life may be.” 

Steve joined the community three years ago, after decades of working in the corporate world. I asked him if it was hard to be vulnerable in these meetings—if it was exhausting to put so much work into communicating well. He shook his head. “It’s harder to live outside the farm in some ways. There are a lot of conflicts that you have to maneuver through constantly. That was my world for most of my life.” At Bethlehem Farm, he found, “we’re able to focus on our values, our beliefs, and the cornerstones. Society in general doesn’t necessarily have those same principles.”

On one of the days of my visit, rain forced work at two construction sites to be rescheduled. The Caretakers quickly convened to reshuffle the day’s tasks and assignments. They spoke with one another directly and practically, but also respectfully. No one seemed to mind too much when his or her individual project had to be put on the back burner. At another such ad hoc meeting, the Caretakers went over what had to be done to prepare for a group of volunteers arriving the following week: a shower had to be repaired, groceries had to be bought and meals planned, spare rooms had to be cleaned and prepared. Each Caretaker spoke candidly about what they thought they could achieve, and they traded tasks with each other according to their schedules and interests. Raine had said to me about the Covenant of Cooperation that “every family, every couple should have this.” Seeing how the principles of the Covenant worked out in practice, I was beginning to agree.

Dinner at Bethlehem Farm. Cooking and cleaning responsibilities are shared among community members (Pearson Ripley).

But what about when circumstances are more challenging? Joseph, a twenty-six-year-old Caretaker, told me about the difficulties the community faced during the pandemic. Some people wanted to “hunker down” and cease all activities off the farm; others, he said, couldn’t live that way. Together, they had to make a lot of hard decisions—about how to visit family or when it was safe to go to a work site: “How do we take that trust of each other generally and extrapolate to this new scary situation that we don’t know a whole lot about?” 

Some days, Joseph said, it was hard to find agreement. “It’s difficult when we start conversations without recognizing that everyone wants the best for the farm. That’s why trust is so important.” Eventually, he said, the community was able to make adjustments and continue their service in the broader community. All the Caretakers are now vaccinated, and the farm welcomes vaccinated volunteers (with exceptions according to CDC guidelines). 

Even when it’s going well, Joseph said, living in community can sometimes be exhausting. He told me a story of Dorothy Day on her way back to her room after a long day. When a homeless man approached her for help, she turned him away. “She just wanted to go to sleep and not have to meet Christ in someone else.” 

 

Eric and Colleen have three children—ages ten, seven, and four. Though Eric and Colleen aren’t “in charge” of the community—the Caretakers make all decisions by consensus—it was largely their vision that created Bethlehem Farm. I wanted to know what it meant for them to be what Cardinal Dulles called a “contrast community.” Such a term could suggest wariness, if not condemnation, of the world outside.

“We should look different from mainstream society because we’re trying to live an authentic Christian life,” Colleen said. “But we’re not supposed to look weird on purpose. Are we intentionally choosing the ways we try to be different in ways that make sense and bear fruit?”

Eric quotes St. Paul: “We should look like fools for Christ. There are aspects of a Christian lifestyle—like nonviolence, maybe like composting—that seem to some people like a stupid thing. But it flows from our Christian witness. And when they flow from our Christian witness instead of from the world, they probably are going to look different.”

The differences Eric and Colleen described—living simply on a farm, volunteering one’s time in service—seem to be most appealing to a particular type of person at a certain stage of life. Most Caretakers are young, single people, college-educated and secure enough to live on the monthly stipend Bethlehem Farm provides. Some Caretakers told me they were applying to grad school or eventually wanted to find a partner and start a family. But if most of the community members are there only temporarily, is Bethlehem Farm really sustainable as a community

One way to make the community more permanent is to welcome couples and families who plan to stay long-term. Eric told me that the community is “very supportive” of their parenthood and have made childcare a regular part of the life of the community. One of the assigned tasks in the morning is “Kid Care”—if school isn’t in session, a Caretaker or volunteer watches the kids. Sometimes Gemma gives them violin and piano lessons, or Steve takes them biking. On the other hand, it can be hard to manage a crowd of volunteers as well as family life: “Imagine forty people getting up from evening prayer and one door separating them from the baby you just put down.”

Colleen told me a fellow Caretaker has helped her balance the duties of being a good parent and being a good community member: “Sometimes they’re in perfect alignment and sometimes they’re not.” When I asked if she ever wonders whether the relatively unconventional family life is good for her kids, she says she is constantly asking herself that question. Then she laughs. “I wouldn’t be surprised if they talk about living here in therapy someday, but there are so many ways they are nourished here. There are teachers everywhere. They see people praying and they see people being kind. This is village parenting.”

 

By the end of my short visit to Bethlehem Farm, I was exhausted, both physically and emotionally. As some of the Caretakers had told me, this kind of intense community life can be draining, especially if you aren’t used to it. One night, evening prayer was particularly intense: each of us shared his or her own dreams for the future. We prayed for each other to be guided where God wants us to go.

I had found a few of the community’s rules hard to abide by, even just for a few days. After a particularly sweaty day in the garden, I snuck an extra bucket shower. One morning, I put on a little bit of makeup. And one evening when the community was supposed to be fasting from electricity, I talked on the phone with my husband instead.

Still, I came to respect what rules mean within the community. Colleen had told me that what counts in their practices is not how weird or counter-cultural they appear, but whether they bear fruit. As soon as the Caretakers decide together that a particular rule or practice no longer makes sense, they scrap it. They take things as they come, responsive to each other’s needs and to the promptings of the Holy Spirit.

 

Perhaps it was just the stark contrast from my usual city surroundings, but I couldn’t escape it anywhere I looked: so much life, everywhere. The soil was wriggling with insects, the trees grew tall and strong, the chickens played, the gardens were bursting. Tori was right: even the weeds were amazing. One of the summer volunteers, who had done several stints at the farm, told me why she keeps coming back. “I know God is with me all the time,” she said. “But when I’m not here, it’s easier to forget.”

One afternoon, I helped Colleen cook dinner. Using kale that volunteers had picked that morning and eggs from the farm’s flock of chickens, I made two huge casseroles. When Molly said the blessing, she thanked God for me and the other cooks along with the food. I felt the immediacy of seeing how my labor was sustaining other people—even a whole community. And it was those same people who had picked the kale and collected the eggs, making my contribution possible.

Most of us don’t get to see immediate connections between our daily labor and the good of others. At Bethlehem Farm, it’s visible every day. Everyone contributes, everyone benefits. Together. Here, work ceases to be toil for individual gain and becomes mutual care. I can’t think of a better vision of the Kingdom of God: a place where everyone’s gifts are honored, where no one is extraneous, where all are loved. 

Related:

Issue: 

The Varieties of Religious Community Today

Issue: 

They Were Here

I remember, or think I remember, what it was like to take a plastic, black permanent marker in my hand and, after a glance over my shoulder to assure myself that I wasn’t being watched, touch it to the plastered wall of the cast dressing room and quickly write my name: one more name among many, a small witness to my short presence in that theater and the work I had done there. That wall, that dressing room, that entire theatrical space is gone, demolished this past summer shortly after graduation exercises at the high school that housed it. This is much to the good: the building looked like a military-supply shack built in hostile territory, all bare sheet metal on the outside walls. Now there is a new performing-arts center elsewhere on the school grounds, and though I have not seen it, I am sure that it boasts better acoustics, more welcoming performance spaces, more versatile lighting, and all the accoutrements that a wealthy and arts-conscious private-school budget could buy.

The first students to enjoy the new building began with blank walls and were doubtless enjoined not to write on them. Perhaps they even listened for a year or two: it’s hard to work up the courage to make the first mark. And even after someone or a group of someones made the first inscription—as they certainly have—people and productions will have to keep adding names until the space no longer feels so starkly empty, and then someday, somebody will walk in and see the names on the walls and will both know and feel how many people were in that place before them.

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Inscriptions are a special kind of monument because of the inseparability of text from material context: they’re written on something, by someone, for some purpose. Graffiti, in turn, is a special kind of inscription: made for personal rather than official reasons, on some kind of public wall but without the official sanction of the public-facing body that owns or oversees the building. The act of writing graffiti can be a small rebellion against the impersonal design of, say, school institutions—a sign that people passing through did matter, that their presence made a difference. Even when that difference is nothing more than people’s names on walls, the sheer accumulation of names thickens a place and sets it aside, renders it sacred in the oldest sense. Their having been here and having left the sign of their presence makes the difference. They were here, just as you are here.

 

The communion of saints is an old doctrine, and often misunderstood. Both those who practice veneration of saints and those who do not tend to emphasize the saints whose names and stories are widely known: St. George and his dragon, St. Catherine and her wheel, and the many scholars and mystics whom we know through their writings. To be sure, it is much for the better that we know their lives and their voices and have their examples before us: the Catholic Church has long commended “friendship with the saints” as a way to holiness. But, fallen as we are, our knowledge of them can easily become plagued by misapprehension and perverted by idolatry. Thus St. George becomes a hero of English nationalism, St. Maria Goretti takes up as a youth-conference chastity speaker, and St. Thomas Aquinas boorishly patrols the boundaries of orthodoxy. And this is the trouble: lives that can be “read” can be misread, and if we are persuaded by the testimony of history, they will be.

Through the presence of the saints we can have tangible experience of God’s shaping and permeation of a whole lifetime.

We are fortunate, however, to have at our disposal the resources of a theological tradition to which the problem of such misreading is neither new nor difficult, and the corrective it offers has always been apophasis, the refusal of speaking in order to avoid falsehood and nonsense. But where do we find the apophatic view of the communion of saints? Precisely at the point where our knowledge ends. The Church has always taught that its list of canonized saints is not exhaustive: the number of the blessed is unknown and unknowable. Not having the names of this host or biographies that we might misuse, we cannot make them other than what they are: Christians in whom God’s work is fully realized, who have passed through death into the abundance of life. All we know is that they once were here like us, and that God has done for them what he might do for us. In approaching the saints through our ignorance, we can better see the futility of our attempts to repurpose them. They do not lend sanctity to our works and causes because sanctity is not theirs to lend; it is theirs precisely because they have no cause but God’s own.

A lack of names, a lack of biography, orients us more clearly toward what makes a person a saint: not the particular acts of a life but the work of God in those acts. In this light, what the known saints can and do give us is presence, or rather the signs thereof. We know of God’s presence in our lives, but through the presence of the saints we can have tangible experience of God’s shaping and permeation of a whole lifetime. Though the Catholic fascination with relics has at times metastasized into a grotesque trade in human remains, we continue to venerate these signs of holy life. Relics of the first and second class—that is, the body and the habitual possessions of a holy person—are the stuff of life, the physical remains or means of life by which God did something strange and mighty in the world. They are signs of presence, sensory proof of a person who lived as we did, who ate and drank as we did, who sinned and repented as we might do. Our communion with them is for us the sight of a possibility: their past becomes a sign of our future.

 

We need such signs. The kids who flocked to that high school theater dressing room with its thick embellishment of nominals came there because, more often than not, they were the sorts of kids who had trouble seeing themselves in the people held up by the school and by the broader culture as exemplars of success. They were often LGBT kids and neurodivergent kids, kids dealing with difficult mental-health issues or trouble at home or who just needed a place where it was alright to be a little bit strange. Kids in that position cannot rely on the prevailing social imagination to present them with a future, which they are old enough to need but not yet old enough to be able to see for themselves. But in that dressing room that contained our own private roll of honor, they—we—were given proof of our futures. The thing that so many young social oddballs, queer and otherwise, had to find and construct—when, as Eve Tushnet writes, they were “seeking precedents…to figure out what kind of possibilities [their] futures might hold”—was simply there in front of our eyes. Who these people were I did not know, but in my ignorance every name was a possible future, a way forward that led to a place about which I could know nothing except that it was real, and its reality was attested by the reality of the person who, I knew, had taken out a pen or a marker and written their name in the place where I was standing.

It is, I think, the unknown reality of our ultimate destination that makes proper sense of the variegated lives of the saints. None of us can say what our final future means: the guarantees we have been given of bodily resurrection and sharing in the fullness of divine life are in many ways greater mysteries than mute silence would have been. But the firm reality of this future, a reality that, because it partakes more directly of divine life, lies beyond the horizon of our present imaginations, works backward and lends gravity and meaning to our peregrinations. That future is one toward which the relics, records, and miracles of the saints point: such things are evidence for us that God was at work in their lives, bearing them along, pace Fitzgerald, ceaselessly toward the fullness of their future in him.

This is part of what Herbert McCabe means when he writes that “Christians, in a sense, look at the present from the perspective of the future.” A future whose reality is known to us by faith and whose direction is partly mapped by the saints who came before us is a vantage point through which we see how much our lives really do matter. The tokens of presence left behind, like a graffiti tableau of names, make their lives mean something for us: their lives have made a difference simply because they were here, and our own lives, too, make a difference simply by our being here. In seeing that God works in our lives even now, we come to know that being borne by grace to our unknown destination already means something, though we will not yet know what until we get there. Our future need not be visible, need not bear the world’s stamp of approval, for it to be real.

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