Mysticism for Mathematicians

By Kate Henley Averett 6-08-2010

I've always longed to see the world through a poet's eyes -- to see the magical in the everyday and to be able to weave words in such a way as to convey that magic to others. I've tried my hand at poetry a few times, but I just don't have the gift; I get hung up on rhyme, structure, rhythm and can't make the jump to conveying feelings, thoughts, emotions, power. I guess I like my metaphors too clean and direct.

I am instinctively more comfortable around the logical, around things that are neat and tidy and easily diagrammed. When I took my first year of calculus in 11th grade and my teacher demonstrated to us on the blackboard how the integral of a function was also the value of the area bounded by its graph, I fell in love with calculus. All these giant messes of numbers and variables, and here they were able to be represented in such a simple way, a way that made sense, a way that I could visualize! I loved completing problem sets, knowing that each problem had an answer that I could find and circle at the end of my work. Neat and tidy. Logical and answerable. The way I liked it.

Yet as much as I liked the explainable and answerable, I longed for something more. The same year I fell in love with calculus, I was confirmed. It feels rather silly when I admit this now, but I was really excited to receive the gifts of the Holy Spirit. With visions of Pentecost dancing in my head, I dreamed of what it would feel like. Imagine my disappointment when the Bishop smeared the oil on my forehead and all I felt was ... well, oil dripping down my forehead.

I wanted my confirmation to be a mystical experience, just as I wanted to see the world as a poet does.

I went to college to be a math major. I wanted to teach high school calculus, and I had a mission to make a difference in my students' lives, to teach other girls to love and excel at math. But once I got past calculus III, I realized how the rest of math was unlike calculus. It wasn't always neat and tidy and certainly wasn't always as easily visualized as an integral. As much as I had loved finding the answers to problems in my calculus classes, I hated not being able to find the answers as my classes got harder. What good is a tidy answer if it eludes you?

I abandoned my world of answers both obvious and elusive in search of a new passion and found it in the study of religion. I learned to love questions the way I had once loved answers. I began to enjoy the ambiguity of things, how attempting to answer a question resulted in the formation of hundreds more, with nary a clear answer in sight.

I studied Dorothy Day as a senior in college, immersing myself in her writings and trying to understand her theology, her spirituality, her thoroughly Catholic yet highly unusual Catholic-ness. I was struck by how, for Day, things that I had often considered out of my reach, too mystical, too poetic to understand, were, in a way, neat and tidy. Take the Mystical Body of Christ, for example. For Day, it meant that we're all interconnected; therefore if one member suffers, I too am suffering, and as I suffer alongside my fellow members of the body of Christ, it is my duty to work to relieve their suffering. That's it. You hurt -- I feel it. I work to soothe your hurt, and we all benefit. I could visualize it as something of a mathematical equation, and it was easy to see how holding firm to this belief, all of her work with the Catholic Worker fell right into place.

What for many may seem a deep mystical concept beyond our grasp was for Day more of a problem set to be solved, the answer -- solidarity with the poor -- circled at the bottom of the sheet. Problems like poverty, hunger, war, and violence that are overwhelming and not easily answered for most of us, were made simple and answerable in Day's worldview. The more I read Day's writings, the more I found myself seeing the world through her unique "mystical" lens. I began to see things beyond what I was really seeing, and as the world as I saw it became more complex it somehow also became more simple. In Dorothy Day, my mathematician's heart found its mystical hero.

Kate Henley Averett received her B.A. in Religion from Mount Holyoke College in 2004. Her senior thesis, entitled "'First of all, we are Catholics': The Radical Action and Catholic Consciousness of Dorothy Day" was awarded High Honors by the department. She is a contributor to the From the Pews in the Back blog.

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