My childhood church was full of grandeur and gold leaf, with walls three feet thick and shimmering mosaics so tall you had to tip your head back to take them in. What I liked best about it, though, were the words inscribed on the sandstone walls. Words were everywhere: flanking the altar, below the jeweled windows, overlooking each pew. Among the inscriptions were ornate quotations from Victorian prayer books and scripture. Whenever my attention flickered, I’d read the walls.
Each week in Mass, I learned that the Christian faith itself is made of words—words that make things happen. In the very beginning, God says, Let there be light—and there is light. This sense of the power of words stitched together every aspect of faith for me, from Scripture to the words the priest said over the bread and wine to change them, words Jesus said first. At home, I read a passed-down volume of The Lives of Saints for Girls in the bathtub. My grandfather kept a rosary beside his bed, each bead tied to different words. And the cadences of the prayers we sang or said before meals were as familiar as my own heartbeat.
Some of these words were troubling. Above my family’s pew, the wall said: In the great record above, our names are written in characters of love—characters which love for our dear Jesus alone can read, and which by his great love for us alone have been graven. Scuffing my patent-leather shoes against the kneeler, I turned these words over in my mind, tracing them in my palm, wondering where—or if—my name was written in characters of love.
I can trace the beginning of my life as a poet back to those moments in that pew. Listening to words, turning them over in my mind, has taught me to listen to the meanings behind words and read the silences between them. This practice of paying attention has both deepened and complicated my faith life. The more carefully I listen, the more painfully I hear the cries of people the church has broken. I cannot help but notice every misused word or silence. Revelations of clerical abuse were already in the air during my childhood, and more are emerging all the time. The year I graduated from Georgetown University—a place I love, where my faith came alive—I learned the sordid details of the school’s early priests selling people they had enslaved for profit. I learned, too, that some Jesuits used the words of the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises, a guided retreat I was about to undergo, to justify the order’s slaveholding.
The practice of paying attention has both deepened and complicated my faith life.
These problems extend beyond the Catholic Church to Christianity in general. Leaders from pastors to politicians use Christian language to betray the ideals of the Church, and then to disguise the betrayal. In the broader public sphere, Christianity has become a political and cultural identity divorced from the ministry of Jesus—someone put a sign saying “Jesus Saves” next to the gallows white supremacists erected outside the Capitol on January 6.
Seeing the words of Christianity deployed in these ways has made it increasingly difficult for me to say I’m a Christian. For me to say I’m a Christian—as a white American woman in 2021—carries all those other uses with it. The words catch in my throat.
This is not a problem of belief. Nor can it be solved by leaving the Church. The words I’m not a Christian don’t describe me, either. This is a problem of language: how words are shaped and changed by the cultures that use them. In a faith built on words, that’s no small thing.
This is a problem of language: how words are shaped and changed by the cultures that use them.
When I first had difficulty saying those words, I kept it to myself. I was ashamed in every direction: of what has been and is being done in the name of Christianity, and of my inability to say something that once came easily. It seemed I didn’t have a place in the Church or out of it. Just before my college graduation, I finally broached the subject with a professor and mentor who was also a nun. In her bright, cozy office packed with books on the Catholic intellectual tradition, I kept my eyes on a sunlit crucifix as she quoted Luke 9:26, telling me my resistance to saying I’m a Christian came from the devil. Her words felt like a slap. I’d never heard her mention the devil or speak so sharply to anyone. Convinced that the problem lay with me, I wouldn’t talk about it to anyone else for years.
What does it mean that I still can’t say those words? Why can’t I do what everyone else seems able to do: either say them or leave the Church behind? I’ve wrestled with these questions for years, incapable of answering them because they seem to imply a choice between being a poet who knows how words shape—and are shaped by—the world and a woman who loves God. The struggle has left me feeling not only ashamed but sometimes numb and often alone.
If the problem is a problem of language, it is also a problem of belonging. I once heard a priest describe Psalms as a prayer book of exile, which explains why I’ve been drawn to them. Unable to leave either part of my being behind, I feel exiled from belonging itself.
For a long time, I viewed my struggle through the Bible story of Peter and the rooster. The story had long fascinated me for its perfect humanness, the vulnerable inevitability of it: that Jesus knew what would happen, and Peter said it wouldn’t, and then it happened exactly as Jesus said it would—that Jesus knew Peter better than he knew himself. It frightened me as a child because it was a story of a person failing God. Growing up, I read the story over and over, looking for a way to make myself different than Peter. And now here I was, no different than Peter at all.
Now, though, I realize that what I was seeking in my rereading wasn’t a deeper faith but a way to be less human. I wasn’t trying to learn how to be closer to God but how to pass a test the story said I would inevitably fail.
My struggle is not separate from faith but integral to it.
More recently, I’ve begun turning to a different Biblical story to help me understand my struggle with words: Jacob’s wrestling with the angel. When I look through this lens, I see my story not as one of failure and denial, but one of wrestling with faith and coming closer to God. In other words, my struggle is not separate from faith but integral to it.
I still don’t have an answer to what I’ve struggled with for so long, or new words to replace the ones that seem broken by a world that is itself broken. But I do have the words of Hebrews 11: Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen… Through faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that things which are seen were not made of things which do appear.
There is faith in not saying words that feel wrong. There is faith in waiting, even when we don’t know what we’re waiting for. Jacob wrestled the angel in pursuit of a blessing and was given a new name. Instead of walking away, he held on.