The Unspeakable and Unexpected
“‘God’ is an unusually complex word, complex in an unusual way. Other complex words denote a semantic field which may be rich and varied, even contradictory; there may be intricate movements between literal and metaphorical meanings; the etymological roots of the language may be activated by Milton’s poetry, and buried meanings be brought into play. But ‘God’ is complex in that the word is, or should be, a perpetual reminder of its own failure. We cannot speak of God in his own nature directly, but only indirectly and imperfectly, in language whose definitions and whose imagery must remind us continually of its incapacity.”
-Paul Hammond, from Milton's Complex Words: Essays on the Conceptual Structure of Paradise Lost
Our professor presented this quote in class as a means of explaining helpful writing strategies for our upcoming essays and dissertations. When this quote popped up on screen, I immediately perked up. Maybe it was because it was the first time I was seeing ‘God’ used in a teaching setting. Maybe it was because Hammond complicates theology as a literary matter. As my Writing Identities professor once suggested, “don’t you think literature is a kind of religion itself?” Either way, the friend sitting next to me perked up as well. In a shared moment of familiarity we recognized that this excerpt digs at the root of my literary passions.
A few weeks prior, in a different class, we were discussing Freud’s theory of the unconscious. In a meek attempt to vocalize my opinion (my classmates are very intimidating) I suggested Freud's attempt at metaphor is similar to an attempt in defining God. Every eye in the room immediately shot at me, and my professor let out an uncomfortable laugh. For a moment I forgot that not every university classroom displays a crucifix opposite the clock. Since this moment, I’ve somehow tangled myself into writing all of my essays and my final dissertation about God and the Divine. The deeper I dive into literature, the closer I get to the wounds of faith.
Before moving to England I made a pact to let myself explore in the areas of religion and spirituality. At SLU my Catholic faith was always closely tied to a group of liberal friends, a mass choir, or an a Capella group. During my JV year, faith took the shape of social action or church for the sake of our neighbors’ in need. Moving to a country notoriously known for being less religious than the US, I was excited to allow myself to exist in a place where I felt no pressure to find an image of God or identify with a set of beliefs. While I frequently go church-hopping to make community connections, I’ve let my spirituality fall into a quiet, and almost peaceful, void. Early on I started asking myself: ΅Who is Emily without Catholicism?’ By growing towards the answer, I can learn to better love and appreciate new and old values alike.
I imagine my more religious friends to chuckle at this story and suggest that God works in mysterious ways. I suppose I’m laughing with them, but at the same time I recognize that sacredness breathes through so many different mediums. I expected to be surprised by the lack of God-talk, but the more I open myself to new experiences, the more I continue to be surprised by my own thoughts, emotions, interests, and limitations surrounding God, morality, and value systems.
Sometimes I feel the pressure of the unspeakable topics--like God--difficult to bear. I can’t help but feel that people on the outside looking in assume certain things about my life, my experiences, and my identities, especially since moving to England. I won’t be the only person to tell you that even living in a place as a glamorous as England comes with many challenges.
To name a major challenge, I often feel alone. It is important to distinguish this from loneliness (which I am not experiencing). Only having two classes a week and a few core friends, I’m left to many hours with myself. Not being attached to a student group, church, or community, I feel a tension between liberation and complete isolation. People seem to find this part of living abroad unspeakable and I can understand why. My journal is filling up more rapidly than it ever has. I find myself scrolling through facebook for free events in hopes to make contacts with people. I find myself writing poems about missing the Midwest (something I vowed I would never do). I bake for the sole purpose of experimenting (it’s all in grams and so confusing). I watch more TV than I ever have (Atypical though!?). However, studying the writers who thrived on alone-ness (Virginia Woolf, Emily Dickinson) before me often helps me cope with the silence that comes with being alone.
The more I read poets who utilize silence through whitespace, the more I find the value in life’s silence. The silence, blank page, clean canvas, allows me to discover who I am without any words written on top of me. Sometimes this space yields big changes, other times, this silence allows me to celebrate the small changes, like realizing that that swimming laps is my favorite form of meditation, or that dancing to 80s rock ballads in my room with the lights off has taken the place of older forms of sacred self-care.
When sitting down to write this blog post, I admittedly didn’t plan to write about silence or God or alone-ness (in a way that is new and exciting, these topics feel more vulnerable than usual?). I wanted to indulge in writing a magical story about my spiritual experience at the Florence + The Machine concert (no worries, it’s in a poem). I’ll take this as a much-needed lesson that sometimes you have little power in what your heart wants...or needs. This is completely terrifying, but I will admit that even on my worst days I feel an electric current running through my blood. Everything in every way is different, but quite invigorating.
Like I’ve said before, I believe that magic happens when you meet the universe halfway. Old and new friends alike always seem to tell me -- ‘Emily, you are magic.’ While I sometimes don’t know what to make of this, I often remember these affirmations in the silent spaces of my life and smile, realizing that courage often translates into a special kind of energy. In the small moments where I don’t seem to ‘fit’ into the places and spaces around me, I remember that magic is courage in action. Living in your 20s is messy, colorful, confusing, and sometimes silent, magic. My brain, soul, and heart have felt like mush lately, but I wanted to check in and share some recent thoughts. Turns out, I have a lot of them. With this, I throw my hands up and give a lackadaisical smile.