Singing to Jesus with Eyes Closed
They started to appear on campus a few years ago. We do a lot of things at Berkeley out in the open that would get you arrested or side-eyed anywhere else: nudity, dope, discussing Heidegger’s concept of ontological change over falafels. We don’t do naked emotion. But there they were: young, mostly Asian, beautiful kids standing on Sproul Plaza, one of them playing a guitar, all of them singing, singing with their eyes closed. And in front of them, a sign, the all caps words limned in gold: God is IN LOVE with YOU.
I do not doubt that God is in love with these kids. And calling them kids when I’m technically but generationally not quite old enough to be their mother is my first way of keeping my distance. None of them are my students. But I do spot one of my students soon after I walk through the resonating chords of the bad Jesus music they’re keening as they sway and hug themselves. And my student is behind a table for the Taiwanese Christian Association. And at another table, Korean Christians for Christ, is another student. At every other table on the plaza, students want to talk to you about Jesus. You would think Berkeley had suddenly transformed from Berkeley, and all that Berkeley entails, into an Evangelical school.
In Wheeler Hall, where my office sits half underground and half over it, I climb two flights of stairs and arrive winded, my arms full of papers and books and a laptop, at my creative nonfiction class. Today is draft day. The students want to write about pain and loss and death. “Those are kind of clichéd topics,” I tell them, “but I’m not gonna stop you.” And I read the drafts about pain and loss and death and so many of them are about losing faith. Losing God and religion. One guy, so smart, with a corona of curling hair, tells the story of the day he no longer wanted to be Catholic, “because I want to scream at everyone in church that you’re worshipping an implement of torture.” And I hand him back the draft with my careful comments, which say nothing at all about his newfound atheism but say instead things about sensory detail and first person pronouns. The classroom is hot, it swelters and I sweat, embarrassingly large quantities of sweat. So I open the window against protests from Southern California students who think anything under 70 degrees is freezing, kids who wear Ugg boots in summer, and one of them pulls his hoodie more tightly around himself, hugging himself, and in through the window it comes. The keening singing. The closed-eyes singing. Jesus. Jesus. Jesus is in love with me.
What I don’t tell the students, or my friends, or my mother, or my siblings. What only the guy I’m married to knows and isn’t entirely happy about it. On Wednesdays, a night when I should be at home resting up for the ten hours of teaching and meetings I have on Thursday, I sit in a room with sixteen people and talk about Jesus. Nobody closes their eyes, or hugs themselves, or sings. Nobody talks about God being in love with them. The priest reminds them that God loves them, yes, but there is no intimacy involved. We are Catholics, after all.
What I wanted to write on that student’s essay about leaving the Catholic church. When I was 19 my father died. At his funeral Mass I looked up at the cross and thought the same thing: I hate the pain I’m staring at. These people are worshipping pain. I know how you feel, I know it so well. The reason I did not write this: it is a public school. We don’t talk about religion except in the context of books we read. We don’t talk about our personal lives much at all, really, as it’s not appropriate, even in a creative writing class, and at conferences and meetings we debate this and the answer is always: no. Don’t say it. Maybe the occasionally funny anecdote. We don’t talk about prayer or faith or the loss thereof, a loss that began when my father died and continued for decades until I found myself back in a pew, back at church, back in spite of everything I stand for: feminism, equality, logic. And I prefer keeping this quiet, frankly, because my prayer when I’m leaving the church, which is just blocks from campus, is please God don’t let me run into one of my students. Or one of my colleagues. Or anyone I’ve ever met.
Faith is shame. It’s the shame of seeing those closed-eyed Evangelicals being enraptured by a God who knows them better than any human could. It’s the shame of Bernini’s Saint Theresa in Ecstasy, a statue of such violently erotic and intimate nature I’m shocked, when I travel to Rome on a DIY pilgrimage, to see it displayed in a church. Faith is the shame of Holy Thursday, when everyone around me gets up to wash a stranger’s feet, and I am too paralyzed with hypochondria to move. Faith is the shame of never doing enough: never volunteering as much as those Catholic Workers who surrender everything for God, never wanting to distribute Eucharist at Mass, never attending daily Mass but only showing up on Sundays and missing Sundays fairly often, never praying before bedtime, never praying much at all, never being as good as the nuns you see on the news boarding a bus and confronting the government about its neglect for the poor, never as good as the Franciscan who was the first to rush in and the first body carried out of the World Trade Center. Those are the kinds of faith that make you feel bad about yourself. Catholics are very good at that.
Faith is being willing to stand on the place where Mario Savio stood and told us to throw our bodies on the gears of the machine and to sing, instead, about a rogue Palestinian Jew who stood singing with the despised and marginalized and then threw his body onto a primitive implement of torture in order to upend the social order. And that is something I cannot do. After I handed back that young atheist’s essay, two days later, in spite of my careful silence about the topic even while I was preparing to be confirmed into the Catholic church, he dropped the class. I met another Catholic woman who, like me, is pro choice and who works for marriage equality and who has one foot in and one foot out of the church at all times, and she stood behind me at Easter as a priest slathered oil onto my forehead and the congregation sang Veni Sancti Spiritus, Come Holy Spirit, comforter, guest of the soul, consolation. And I wanted to find that young atheist and say, yes, you can walk away, and it is okay to walk away from this, but no, this is not just about torture. This is about finding the lost parts of your soul. It’s about grace.
Sometimes I sing this, very, very quietly, as I walk to class. I sing it so quietly it is just a suggestion. Veni Sancti Spiritus. I sing it on airplanes as I’m traveling to read from a book I wrote about Catholicism, a book that I told no one about until it was just about to be published, a book I wrote secretly, under my breath, a book that comes into the world as a faint sound. Veni Sancti Spiritus. I sing it with my eyes always open.
Kaya Oakes is the author of The Nones Are Alright: A New Generation of Seekers, Believers, and Those In-Between (Orbis, 2015), the memoir Radical Reinvention: An Unlikely Return to the Catholic Church (Counterpoint Press, 2012), and a social-science based exploration of independent art and culture, Slanted and Enchanted (Henry Holt, 2009). She teaches creative nonfiction, narrative journalism, expository and research writing at the University of California, Berkeley.