First... There was AOL Messenger. My handle was dudeisk8214 because I belonged to the subversive tribe of skateboarders who only gave shits about having perfectly sculpted sidebangs and being the first to watch the next DC skate video. I was also a recovering Catholic homeschooler, trying to figure out how to reconcile the savage world of public middle school with Jesus. I would scratch the anarchy symbol on concrete underpasses with my punk friends and then skateboard home after school, wait thirty minutes for my desktop to turn on and connect to the internet… and then log on to AOL and find chat rooms where I could defend the truth of the Holy Roman Catholic Church. (And Republicanism).
I couldn’t sustain the split identity for long. Soon it was the mid 2000s: Coheed and Cambria, Garden State. It was senior year of high school and I was in a emo band with a local following. The internet had grown with me, hitting its awkward puberty stage with Xanga and then turning 16 with MySpace, and by this time, I was using all these new tools to facilitate hookups with girls or to get people to listen to my band’s demos. The awkward homeschooler was all but exorcised.
But around that time was invited to a Life Teen retreat at a local church. On Saturday night they had Adoration. It was like the gym was transformed to some dark ancient cave, with 300 youth kneeling on carpet squares in freakish silence around a pyramid of candles. As I kneltin the flickering candle light, the band began to play and a priest with shimmering vestments and a host in golden monstrance processed between us. Music poured over me, and it moved me more deeply than any emo show had ever done. Somehow it opened me to God. I can’t describe what I felt now, I can only say that I experienced Him - not as an abstract ideology - and it blew my mind. I went to confession and returned to my carpet square with hot tears in my eyes, feeling like a total supernova of beauty was exploding inside of me.
I wanted more of that. So that summer, I left the band. As they loaded up the band van and headed off to play on the Warped Tour, my brother and I went shopping for khaki pants and dress shirts, preparing for seminary. I cut my bleached sidebangs into the typical spartan seminarian hair-cut in anticipation of re-entering the philosophy dojo so that I could have better comebacks for all my liberal and protestant friends. Then, I thought, they would see what I could see.
By November the winter had frostbitten everything, and I was in a vertigo of depression. I was constantly afraid of being perceived as gay or effeminate. It seemed that a brother seminarian was always watching, waiting to pounce out and fraternally correct me for being late to holy hour or forgetting to observe our Friday lunch fast or for being seen studying alone with a girl. One night, desperate to connect, I stayed up late with a couple other brothers in a dorm room. In usual fashion, the conversation devolved into a passionate debate about the merits of praise and worship. I remember the pain inside of me was crippling- I had hundreds of “seminarian brothers,” but felt irretrievably alone. I spent my 21st birthday drinking some apple juice with a friend who was on night watch duty for another dorm.
There was such a dichotomy between the "truth" that we were learning and the experiences I was having there that my foundations cracked. On some frozen evening in February, I was doing my homework and I had what I realize now was a panic attack- I felt heavy, even nauseous each time I tried to work on the paper, and found myself watching talks by Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, horrified by how convincing I found them.
My solace was the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins, and fiction by Flannery O’Connor or Evelyn Waugh, and I clung to them like a rope hanging over the edge of a cliff. I was almost ejected from my senior capstone course because I was caught multiple times reading Flannery O’Connor rather than listening to my teacher’s lecture.
The seminary gave me many amazing things that I haven’t highlighted here. But it was also place where truth and beauty were very divorced. With all of our studies we were learning how to argue and to correct, but we weren’t learning how to create experiences of Him for each other.
What we were lacking was Beauty. Beauty is a sensual experience of the truth. Beauty is the truth made tangible. The lights, the candles, the scent of incense, the whispers of the priest giving me absolution, the shimmering swells of music, these were the rungs of the ladder that I could, if but for a moment, ascend to heaven. Beauty is also a birthday party, with cake and the happy birthday song (and Irish Car Bombs- Thanks Isaac Huss for Introducing me to those) because these reveal abstract truths, and someone has to create them.
I share this because I think many of us in this group have had similar experiences to different degrees. Catholic culture has been so defensive, so focused on defending its treasure trove of truth that we haven’t done the deep work of learning how to create experiences of that truth for each other or for the world. A defensive culture can’t be a creative culture, and creatives especially struggle to flourish under such conditions.
This, to me, is why I’ve thirsted so much for a different type of community, and what I have found in so many of these friendships with you all. In our most shining moments. I was looking for a space where the Beauty was constantly being created, not for the world but for me. I needed a space in the Church where I could be freed from defensiveness and encouraged, so that I in turn could do the vulnerable work of creating.
Making the Space
In November Jason and JM from Glass Canvas invited us and some other CCs up to Vancouver to spend a few days digging deep into what Catholic Creatives was called to be. From the airport we drove through the most Hallmark town you could ever see, with historic pastel colored shops bordered with mustard-tinged trees, all overlooked by distant white capped mountains.
We found ourselves being served perfectly crafted cappuccinos from the office industrial coffee maker and whiteboarding out all of our core wounds with the Church. During the first day of the “strategy sprint” I saw developing before me an honest dream that I had always wanted but didn’t know how to ask for. My deepest desire wasn’t to raise the level of design in the Church so that we could compete with Hollywood or with Protestants. It was to have a place to belong, a place where I could be free to be myself, where I could have support in the difficult and scary work of creating something new.
So between the whiteboarding sessions and all the crying, we wrote out a why statement.
It’s still a work in progress: but this is what we have. What it means to us is this: The New Renaissance is all of us set free.
From isolation, from fear, from our trauma, from shame, and all the shit that keeps us from our Creator and our own creativity. Catholic Creatives doesn’t have to teach the Church to be more beautiful. That will happen on its own, as all of us find a place in it where our identities as creators and our identities children of the Father can converge.
Crowd Sourced Community
This vision is not one that I or any other person alone can create or own. It is a place that every one of us must create by giving each other permission to share hard things, to have hope, and to create.
As creators we have the power to give each other the freedom to be strange, to be different, to make mistakes, to take risks, to show our weaknesses and to let others touch our scars.
What if Catholic Creatives were itself a collaboration, a piece of performance art, where all of us participated in creating experiences for each other of hope, belonging, or unity? What if the network itself was the sum of hundreds of thousands of little creative acts of relationship? What if this was simply an on-going, crowd-sourced, spiritual (AND MAYBE LITERAL?) creative home that we were all building for ourselves and for each other?
With this vision set out, we would love feedback from all of you to sow into the articulation of this vision. We are very serious about making this an “open source” project, and thus we are working hard to create systems and ways for many more people to participate. As we go, we will be releasing some other blogs and videos that articulate how we see CC growing in the future, and how each platform fits into it. We can say though, that though we started on Facebook, our direction has always been towards fully incarnated human relationships.
Thus, while the Facebook group is going to keep going, our focus as a team is going to be shifting towards facilitating deeper and more direct communication and relationships. We are also grappling with how to overcome the challenges presented by growth, and some new rules of engagement for our Facebook conversations and for our admin team so that we can better live out these values online.
Thanks so much for all the love that you are each showing to each other, and that you have all shown to me. Thanks especially to those of you who have continued to speak into me to tell me that I am not alone, who have also labored beside me to see our community grow. I am especially grateful today for JP Quinn, Kate Hazen, Cory Heimann Marcellino, Christopher Duffel, and Sid O’Neill, who somehow wandered into our Admin Channel in slack and have since found themselves spending many many hours admitting and messaging new members, approving or coaching members on their posts, or messaging hurt or angry members to help facilitate conflict resolution between them.