I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a person is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason. — John Keats, 21 Dec. 1817
Happy Christmas to you all! And may you be blessed with an abundance of negative capability today to ponder the great mystery of love that has yet to find its limit for how far it will go to reach you.
I hope you have found and will continue to find time during this extraordinary season for silence and sweetness in the midst of chaos. And I pray, like the psalmist, that your list of 2020’s blessings outnumbers the list of sorrows.
This newsletter is best paired with a view of snow-covered-trees, coffee, sugar cookie, and cat in your lap. So please find the nearest hearth, Christmas tree, or beachfront, and take a moment to enjoy the sweet unrest with Keats and me.
Keats in the Sheets
“There is no greater Sin after the 7 deadly than to flatter oneself into an idea of being a great Poet”— to Benjamin Robert Haydon, May 1817
— From the Blog—
Sweet Unrest is enjoying a brief, semester-break renaissance. In this most recent post, I’m riffing on a homily from the Office of Readings about the Incarnation.
These thoughts originated several months ago as I was falling asleep, and I wondered how people find meaning in their lives. To be frank, I simply have no idea how one does it outside of some system of religion, so please do respond if you have insight on the subject.
I am so in awe of my classmates at Columbia—they are, for the most part, younger than me and ten times more accomplished. They all have astounding energy, intelligence, and CV lines.
But as I was reflecting with my friend Vincent from theology school recently about my time thus far in journalism school, I noted how little time we spend talking about the common good, normative values, or telos. This makes sense to a degree, given that journalism is an enlightenment project, made for democracies founded on enlightenment principles (unless you want to argue that journalism is actually simply a professionalized form of gossip, the ur-feminist mode of organizing and information-sharing, an argument I am willing to give much air to), and not one that has generally a stated goal other than transparency—i.e., information for its own sake—for each citizen to act upon as they see fit.
So I wondered how many of my classmates who have no religion make meaning out of their lives. It’s a question I have not yet asked, which I should. Because they have often asked how, what, and why I am religious.
I responded to one friend that I think the first step of remaining religious, when I have wandered several degrees from the culture in which I grew up, is wanting to be religious, continuing to incorporate religion into the meaning-making of my life. I asked him if he wanted to be religious. Not particularly, he responded, although he sometimes wanted the certainty he saw religious folks possessing.
I thought of those dark moments of the night when I wondered how my classmates find meaning. I don’t feel that I have much “certainty” in those moments either—I still fear falling into death and wonder what awaits me on the other side. That chill that starts in the bone marrow and shivers through each inch of skin can run through my body at 2 am: is any of this really true?
I don’t think what separates us in those moments is certainty—voices touting certainty smack to me of ideology—but perhaps what separates us is love.
The rock my faith is based on is not a lightness that eradicates all that darkness, but illuminates even the darkness. I still find myself lost and uncertain, but what follows me through times of confidence and times of doubt is love. Love is less a certainty and more a truth, less surety and more mystery.
But mysteries are really the only things we can be certain of anyhow.
Keats in the Streets
“I am however young, writing at random—straining at particles of light in the midst of a great darkness” to George & Georgiana Keats, May 1819
—Sweet Unrest stylings out in the world—
The 2020 Election has been going on since 2018, it proceeds apace, and may it, like we, continue in good health far into the future.
In keeping with the rest of the media circus, I wrote two pieces this autumn that touched upon the current political climate.
The first (which I penned sooner, but was published later), was a review of Rowan Williams’ lovely new set of essays, The Way of Benedict, for America Magazine.
Stability, in Williams’s interpretation, means a commitment to dwelling with the other—even the unpleasant or antagonistic other. It means acknowledging that my own unhappiness will not be solved by the absence of the offending person.
Read the full review here.
The second was an essay for the revealer on the Catholic Worker, a project that began in my reporting seminar and then expanded to take up much more time and space.
The Workers are, of a piece, beautiful human beings, and it was an absolute joy to be welcomed into their community and listen to their stories. The revealer essay is not so much a piece about the Worker’s individual members as it is about the life they make together and its meaning.
The story opens with the event that has shaped the fall for many members of the Worker community in New York City—Carmen Trotta’s sentencing for his protest of nuclear weapons. Spending time with Carmen and Martha Hennessey, Dorothy Day’s granddaughter, before they left for their prison sentences was a true gift. I’m certainly not done meditating on the nearly-seamless integration the Worker accomplishes between prayer, resistance to the point of imprisonment, and dish-washing. They make a strong case for that trinity of activity being a fundamental foundation for Christianity.
After interviews with Carmen and Martha, and, really, each time I left the Worker, I would leave much later than intended—but much, much lighter.
Knoche describes Carmen Trotta as a criminal conspirator, noting his “pattern of behavior of trespass and disregard for the law.”
Trotta’s response exemplifies the Catholic Worker’s credo of civil disobedience: “Every one of my actions has been a reaction to an American war crime.”
Trotta is a member of the Kings Bay Plowshares 7, a group of anti-nuclear peace activists who broke into the Kings Bay Naval Submarine Base in Southeast Georgia on April 4, 2018, to protest the Trident nuclear weapons that are kept on the base. Each Trident missile head is 30 times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. The seven Plowshares members spray-painted “Love One Another” and “Abolish Nukes Now” on the base’s grounds and poured blood on a medallion marking the base as a site holding Trident weapons.
Edward “Bud” Courtney—at 70, the oldest volunteer at St. Joseph House—speaks before the court to testify to the character of the man who introduced him to the house they have shared for the past 13 years.
When asked his profession, Courtney responds simply: “I wash dishes.”
Read the full piece here.
“The Literary world I know nothing about” to George & Georgiana Keats, Feb 1819
—Highlights from the Good Reads shelf—
I have read absolutely nothing as of late, and I feel my brain moldering into definitive rot.
But if there is one poem I would recommend during the Christmas season, it would be W.H. Auden’s For the Time Being, which I have been reading, each morning, rain, sun, or snow.
One of my favorite passages of which I share below:
Mr. Brown’s Bylines
“Brown, who is always one’s friend in a disaster, applied a leech to the eyelid, and there is no inflammation this morning though the ball hit me on the sight.” to George & Georgiana Keats, May 1819
—Pieces from good friends, and from writers whose words have been a friend to me—
Vivian Cabrera, Dec. 18 Advent Reflection, America Magazine
Vivian and I have big hopes for the year of St. Joseph. We love Joseph, he’s our apartment’s patron, and we thank Pope Francis for this personal gift of a year to us. My laundry list for Joseph this year is to topple patriarchy and heal toxic masculinity. I have great faith that 365 calendar days is a superabundantly sufficient time frame for the most long-suffering of saints.
In this lovely reflection, Vivian articluates one of the many reasons we love the patron saint of good listening.
This, I imagine, is the same desire we feel when we really get to know God, when we spend time with him and his creation, whether in prayer or with the people right in front of us. Our hearts draw us closer to our creator who is always with us.
Read or listen to the reflection here.
Monica Hunter-Hart, Anaïs Mitchell Roundup, Paste
My classmate Monica recently properly introduced me to the indie-folk wonder that is Anaïs Mitchell, and I am late to the party, but making up for it with extra servings of enthusiasm. As part of my education, she helpfully shared the listicle she wrote for Paste. I share it with you for ease of introduction, and so you, too, can get a small sample of Monica’s lovely writing, which I have gotten to work with all semester.
“Now You Know” witnesses a human thought unfold, branch, and return to its origin. Mitchell’s sharp narrative impulse is at its most moving as she portrays the progression of an emotional reaction. Listeners don’t learn the reaction’s context until the end, when Mitchell reveals that she was singing an explanation to her lover of why—
well, I’ll let you read and listen to the rest. Here.
And here we are, at the end of a strange, sad year—different, and yet perhaps not so different than most others. All years are strange and so many overflow with sadness. So, again, I can think of no better benediction than the psalmist’s:
Make us glad as many days as you have afflicted us.
There’s no certainty in that, but great trust and great love.
Many blessings to you and yours this sacred time of year.