My favorite window at Little Flower Parish is dominated by yellow, but it is the teal I stare into on Sundays when I am struggling most with my faith. Here, the stations of the cross are depicted in stained glass rather than as frescoes, statues or reliefs. The chunky, vibrant slabs of glass filter the world outside into beautiful kaleidoscopes on the pews. When I sit on the left side of the church, the Mary side, this window is the image on which my eyes rest. It depicts Jesus falling with the cross; I don’t know which time.
On Thursdays, when the entire school at which I teach attends Mass together, my eyes cannot rest here for long. I am on duty: at once a worshiper, religion teacher and rule enforcer. The rules of school and of Catholic school—of being a good student, a good person, a good Catholic—get all tangled up. I worry any reprimand or redirection will be absorbed into my students’ faith: the 11th Commandment is no gum in church, the 12th is no feet on the pews. All the while, these windows bathe our students in yellows, purples and reds—the colors of the Blackfeet artist’s rendering of the Passion. The edges of their ponytails, tumbled loose by a rigorous game at recess, are suffused with multicolored halos. This light transfigures them into icons in the pews, teal and gold-leafed saints.
At their age, I gravitated toward the Beatitudes more than the Ten Commandments. Telling me not to do obviously bad things never resonated quite as much as guidelines for how to actually be good. At their age, however, I heard little mention of the peacemakers Jesus spoke of, or the pure of heart or the merciful; little to no mention of whether or not those hungering and thirsting for justice would ever be satisfied, or how that might come about. There were the people of God and the people of the world and nothing in between. There was only hell and the kingdom of God, and none of us were prepared. I doubted I would ever, could ever be prepared, and so I saw myself out.
At Little Flower, when I sit on the right side of the church, the Joseph side, I behold our students sitting still as icons, some young enough to still have cherubic cheeks. Maybe it is the more recent influence of a few Jesuit parishes on me, but I cannot help but find God in our world, everywhere, in the brick-and-mortar, flesh-and-blood circumstances of our everyday lives. In fact, it is the world that has continually invited me—sometimes demanded of me—to return to the church. It is the vocation of teaching, more than anything, that has called me back to learn from the Teacher.
It is the vocation of teaching, more than anything, that has called me back to learn from the Teacher.
The stained glass in our parish is remarkable, but it is the crucifix that transfixes. It is magnificently brutal. When I first walked into Little Flower parish, I was gripped by uncertainty; I had just moved across the country, sight unseen, after accepting a volunteer teaching position at the only Catholic school founded on a reservation in the 21st century. The school was built at the request of the Blackfeet community, and the opportunity to work there seemed unique and too good to pass up.
But upon arrival, I was riddled with doubts. How could I have left my community in the Bronx, which I loved so much? Was it too soon in my still-hesitant return to the church to commit to living in an isolated Catholic community? What was my place, if I even had one, as a white Catholic teacher on a reservation?
While I would continue to grapple with these questions, walking into Little Flower for the first time temporarily stilled those doubts with one, new certainty. Until that moment, I had never truly seen the crucifix. I grew up with the image of Jesus’ downturned face, his head slumped. His agony is over, his soul has already left his body. But this Christ, son of Nazareth, king of the Jews, is in the throes of Mt 27:46, asking God why he has been forsaken. His face is upturned, mouth open, his body rebelling against its wooden constraints, wracked by human suffering.
My Protestant-raised, convert mother has remarked on the brutality of Catholic imagery, on the enthusiasm with which we adorn our bodies and spaces with the image of our Lord being tortured to death. When I began attending church again, bringing along friends for moral support, my Episcopal friend remarked on our crucifixes as well, and our stations. But, she told me, the thing that caused her more unease than the gore of the Passion openly displayed on our walls was the Sign of the Cross. She felt her unfamiliarity with the prayer branded her as an outsider. She felt afraid to try for fear of getting it wrong.
It is a familiar fear of mine. When first thrust into the Catholic school bubble in middle school, my firmest belief was that my capacity for faith was broken. In the Catholic equation for salvation—faith plus good works—my faith has always been the wobbly bit. My belief in miracles, divine intervention and various other dogmatic issues still shifts like sand from day to day.
Instead, I devoted myself to good works, to hungering and thirsting for justice, even when it put me at odds with the very people whose faith I envied. Today, I am still wobbly in the faith half of the equation. But whether or not I believe—factually, absolutely—in all of the church’s teachings, I know there are elements to the story that are repeatedly brought back into focus for me. I cannot turn away from the crucifixion.
The crucifixion forces me to reckon with this incomprehensible fact: that our God was human, that our God was tortured, that our God died. Our God was human enough to despair, for how else can this moment be described except as despair? I know that the point of Catholicism, of Christianity as a whole, is that God rose again, opened the gates of heaven, secured our salvation. But the crucifixion is the moment I always return to, this human moment.
I know that the point of Catholicism, of Christianity as a whole, is that God rose again, opened the gates of heaven, secured our salvation. But the crucifixion is the moment I always return to, this human moment.
If I ever have a crisis of faith, if I ever leave the church again, it will be over the mind-bending reality of an all-powerful and an all-loving God. When I first began teaching, I was not new to suffering nor inexperienced in evil’s working in our world. But I was new to having a child entrusted to my care; new to being confided in about suffering from such an innocent vantage point; new to the uniquely devastating, impotent rage of having to watch a child suffer and being unable to do anything about it. And I was new to seeing the ways in which systems, reaching up from the past, clawing their way into our present, would attempt to cage my students in regimented and seemingly preordained suffering.
One of my first weeks of teaching in Browning, Mont., the capital of the Blackfeet Nation, a student raised his hand in class and asked, “If Jesus came to save us all, why did he let the U.S. kill off so many Native Americans?” I sit in church every week with surviving descendants of a genocide perpetuated by people who look like me—people whose roots are my roots, out of whose roots I grow. My people’s violence was against those by whom I am surrounded, those who are entrusted to me to teach, those I have come to love. As my ancestors intended, I still benefit daily from these not-so-ancient acts of terror in a way that is also preordained.
I sit in church every week with surviving descendants of a genocide perpetuated by people who look like me—people whose roots are my roots, out of whose roots I grow.
I sit next to children who have lost parents and loved ones to the devastation that arise from extreme poverty and isolation. During the past five years, I have taught students whose ancestors were enslaved, raped, beaten, tortured to produce wealth for my ancestors—ancestors if not by blood, then by bloody inheritance. I have taught students whose families fled disasters, starvation and violence created by my government’s intervention in their lands and communities.
And the answer to this litany of injustices, this mountain of systemic barriers created and maintained by humans is to deploy well-meaning white teachers, plucky recent undergrads like myself, and call it a day. I taught and teach students whose challenges existed before I arrived, before they were born, and will continue on after I leave. My job is to dislodge a pebble, a shard, a grain of sand from the side of this mountain, and then be celebrated for it, while my students and their communities contend with the rest of the weight. I taught and teach students who are yearly set back in their learning by having well-meaning but woefully underprepared teachers thrust upon them.
I have taught students who have been beaten, who have been raped. Some have watched friends die, watched parents die, have been abandoned and have still not just survived but thrived.
And I am told that our God is all-loving and also all-powerful. That he has the power to do anything he wants. And still the children I teach—whom I know, whom I love—witness and experience atrocities. I have listened to every explanatory platitude, and all of them convince me that no one has any idea why God allows this to happen. They only convince me that any God who allows a child to be raped is no God I serve.
I sit in Mass and look at our children gilded with the light of Jesus’ passion. I cry when they sing hymns in Blackfeet. My prayers each day are for them.
And yet, I look at our crucifix, at our savior in his passion; and I remember that he, too, felt forsaken, that the night before his torture and execution, he prayed, “If it is possible, may this cup be taken from me.” I remember that his prayer went unanswered and that he died with despair on his lips, not the wine offered to dull his pain.
I don’t understand it, his suffering. I don’t understand why some of my students are allowed to suffer as he did. But this knowledge—that it happened, whether or not it makes sense—stanches my anger long enough that I am able to entertain the idea that there is still a point to serving this God. That it is not just foolish optimism, not just blind faith, which I have never been any good at anyway. It is something a little more useful that heals my wobbling and angry and bleeding heart when I pray to him.
I am able to entertain the idea that my Catholicism can still exist alongside, and even fuel, my doubts and my love and my fight; that it can carry me farther than I could go alone. It is possible that my faith could also be my own within the wide, wild expanse of Catholicism.
If I cannot yet pour my whole devotion and faith into the dogma the church offers me, it is possible that in the meantime I can labor alongside my child-saints, gilded in yellow and red and blue and purple. I can hunger and thirst and work and work and work for their justice, and my own, knowing that these are one and the same, knowing that our thirst may never be satisfied.