Over the Christmas vacation, my dearest friends from college dropped in for a visit with their family. It was one of those powerfully connective experiences that grown adults usually only get to reminisce and sigh about. Remember? Remember those long, late nights during college, staying up til the wee hours discussing weighty philosophical matters? Remember being twenty and absolutely sure that you were the first people ever to work out the answers to life’s Great Questions? Well, it was like that, only now we are forty (or nearly), and all we knew is that we were possibly asking the right questions, if not answering them.
We stayed up until a very irresponsible hour, for a household sleeping eight overtired children that night. Most of the conversation revolved around faith — what weightier questions are there? (In fact, those conversations were part of the nudge that started this blog.)
At some lull in the conversation, my friend asked why Todd had grown a beard. Not just a beard, but a hefty, full, distinguished beard. A manly beard.
First, I want to tell you what I thought the answer to that question was. I thought he had started doing it to annoy me. I thought he then continued doing it because (a) he liked it and (b) he had always wanted to, but had been to solicitous of my tender feelings (and the tender skin on my face). Without ever having asked him, I was dead certain of that answer, which tells you the kind of long-suffering, patient man I am married to.
Todd answered, “It’s because of Oscar.”
I did a literal double take. He went on to explain that he had stopped shaving during one of Oscar’s early hospital visits, because it was a daily chore and just kind of a pain. And then he just kept not shaving. And for him it became a kind of penance, or continual prayer, or public statement of suffering. At the end of his short explanation, he shrugged, “It’s just not time to shave it off yet. I don’t know when that will be. But I feel like I’m waiting for… something.”
I was blown away by this mind-bending revelation, both because of how wrong I had been (oh, how wrong I usually am when I try to guess my husband’s mind!) and because of the depth of the true answer. But also because I had quietly adopted a similar symbolic practice of my own.
At around the same time, I had started wearing a veil to Mass.
It’s something I had considered and talked about for a long time. The arguments in favor were always convincing to me. But our church, while a very reverent, high Mass kind of church, is not a veil-y kind of church. Many folks show up to Mass in jeans or shorts; veils are few and far between. I did not want to call attention to myself or have people think I was showing off how holy I was (sigh… oh, pride!), so I never followed that small prompting in my heart. Until Oscar got sick. And then sicker. And nothing, nothing, nothing we tried was working.
I found it increasingly difficult to pray, or even to stay in a semi-recollected state at Mass. In truth, I was (am?) pretty angry at Jesus. In August, about a month after the hospital stay were we got Oscar’s devastating diagnosis of infantile spasms, I began wearing a veil to Mass. It was an open and tangible declaration of submission to the will of God on this matter, or at least my attempts in that direction. I was having great trouble controlling my emotions and my heart, so I decided I could at least control my body, in terms of how I physically approached my Lord.
On one hand, Todd’s growing a beard is an image of the Old Testament practice of shaving beards during mourning, but a reverse image; since he didn’t have a beard to shave, he grew one instead. Or put another way, it’s a modern sackcloth-and-ashes. On the other hand, his beard is a recollection of the medieval Christian practice of wearing a hairshirt. He had actually mentioned several times how itchy and irritated the skin on his face sometimes became beneath the beard.
On one hand, my wearing a veil is a reverse image of Lucifer’s cry, “I will not serve,” a deliberate physical sign of my servitude and humility (or attempts thereat). On the other hand, it as an attempt, however weak, to brute-force my way back into love with God. By clothing myself as an obedient and submissive bride of Christ, I reveal the hope that eventually the heart might follow the body. Our actions form our habits form our very selves.
Love is a decision, not a feeling. It is an action, not an emotion. The putting on of the veil is a way to manifest the love of God that I’m not quite feeling, but should be. Need to be.
One of the great comforts of Catholicism, to me, is its emphasis on sacramentality: the physical nature of grace, the spiritual meaning of material things. I find it beautiful that Todd and I both found our own, idiosyncratic sacramental practices to help us process Oscar’s situation. Our physical reminders show that those emotional processes always have to be mediated by and subject to the authority of God.
And I find it comforting that we did this both independently, and in tandem. I like to think it is a sign of how much the praxis of our faith has permeated our hearts over the 11 years, building on our theological assent at our confirmation.
Ultimately, though, as the prophet Joel reminds us, God asks, “Rend your hearts and not your garments.” (2:13) Our outward indications of our mourning, our obedience, our feeble attempts at love will not suffice. God will not settle. He is using our experiences and trials to draw us closer to His own always-suffering heart, which overflows with a love that cannot be poured out onto hearts of stone.
Well. One step at a time.