Parts 3, 4 and 5 of Mattson’s book move in a wide arc from theology to friendship, from love to loneliness. There are ample quotes from his journals, and there are odd moments where I nearly threw the book across the room (and, especially, two places where I wrote “no” in the margins).
Part 3, How to Run the Race: Living Out the Daily Battle for Chastity, saddles up along side part 1 as the best sections of the book, most especially the chapter entitled “The Wisdom and Example of the Saints.” I need to know very little about how they teach gender theory to kindergartners (which is covered in the blogger-voiced part 2) but I need to know a lot more about the saints! This section, citing saints from Cyprian of Antioch and Basil the Great to Ignatius of Loyola and Alphonsus Liguori, is filled with encouragement, and acknowledgement that many of our saints were scoundrels, and not a few of them helped rescue people that make my life seem rather pedestrian. Lots more of this is needed! The Story of St Mary of Egypt, advice from Pope St John Paul, St Francis, St Benedict… St Teresa of Calcutta… there’s so much out there. That this chapter was so short and so good, though, points to what I think was a major failing.
There are no demons in this book; no, nor angels.
In fact, the book seems largely, psychotherapeutic rather than, to coin a term, nousotherapeutic. This follows in the footsteps of many a modern (pardon the language) Western and a few modern Eastern Christian writers who forget the Christian Anthropology taught by the saints. We don’t need Freud, Jung, or any other modern pagans to enlighten the teachings of a Liguori or Loyola. This school of thought seems to treat our temptations as, largely, a psychological issue, and hardly at all as a spiritual malady; always addressed in a mental rather than spiritual way, as in a school of prayer. A good confessor or spiritual director/spiritual father knows that Psychology might get to the root of how this happened, but it won’t fix the who or why as effectively as a prayer against demons who inhabit spiritual wounds, who lurk in dark places in the soul, ready to trip or trigger us. Yet we like to sound modern and scholarly. Even the good Fr Benedict Groeschel in his brilliant “Courage to be Chaste” makes this a mostly psychological and moral issue, rather than a spiritual one. (At one point Groeschel even makes fun of those who used spiritual weapons without seeking a psychological cure, and so fell.)
Our weakness may result from fault lines in our psychological makeup, scored by parents, teachers, bullies, or ourselves. However it takes a Nephew Wormwood or Uncle Screwtape to bring them to full flower and it takes our own willing, human dance to keep them going. The verse that needs to be at the heart of every Christian’s struggle for chastity is Ephesians 6:12: For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.
Our psychological damage (real enough) or our culture, our nurture, whatever, is nothing until it’s taunted, teased, and bullied out into full on fantasy life (the prideful fantasy of an existence lived contra the plan of Life). I think the author gave himself too much credit in the creation of his mistakes, to be honest. And likewise, it is the angels on our side that help us fight the warfare that leads us to victory. Mattson does advise fasting, prayer, Adoration, and frequent recourse to the sacraments of Confession and the Eucharist, but the Church is filled with other weapons for use in this Angelic Warfare. In a how-to book like this there could be nearly half-again as many pages of prayers, novenas, listings of confraternities, prayer groups, etc. (Liturgy of the Hours and the Angelic Warfare Confraternity do get footnotes.)
In part 4, there is a wonderful essay on the language of “Disorder”. It talks about how we are all out of order, how we are all working our way back into God’s pattern for life. I find language of disorder to be liberating. This chapter gave me so very much support in that area! My mind was blown by the passages regarding the human reproductive system. I remember sex ed, where the teacher in Monticello, NY, taught us all the stuff about zygotes, spermatozoa, and all the rest. Yet it never dawned on me until reading this book the the “human reproductive system” is entirely split in two. It’s two three-piston halves of a six-piston engine. It’s an organic system in two parts. I’m sure that’s clear as day to readers who are married, but welcome to my brain. My grasp of the Church’s teaching (following Aristotle as much as Moses) that function follows form, that form dictates telos, that the shapes and meaning of bodies are self-evident, was just abstract to me until I read that passage. Recognizing disorder also results in hope – for order, for direction.
The passages on friendship were, again, autobiographical and I did recognize some of my own missteps. But the blogger’s voice returned here. The reader felt sorry for the friend (the pseudonymous Jake) who seems to have endured rather a long friendship with the author and also gets to endure it again in the reading of the book. I was happy to learn so much about my own mistakes, but I felt sorry for Jake that he was made to be the Example. (Unless Jake is a hybrid of several people…)
There was a chapter on loneliness. I didn’t identify very well here, so, maybe I’m not as introverted as I thought, or maybe I’ve just gotten used to it, or maybe I’m in denial. But alone time, for me, is different from loneliness. The author shares some very painful moments, some very jarring images of emotional pain. I nearly tossed the book away when he compares this to a story from a Nazi concentration camp and learning to “offer it up” for the salvation of the world. It was at that point in reading that I began to wonder uncharitably if there would ever be a spiritual cure here.
Today (Thursday, as I write), coincidentally, I listened to a Byzantine Catholic priest in a podcast talk about getting away from his loneliness by taking all the money in his wallet and buying McDonalds gift cards and giving them away to strangers on the street. I remember a priest in confession telling me to get out of the house, to go to the park, to just sit there and be with people. The cure for loneliness is love: self-giving to other people; to will the good of another. I feel the walls of loneliness closing in on me when I listen to music in my headphones as a way to avoid talking to homeless people. Open up, give, share. It’s the cure.
The author is happy in church, but he talks very little about it. It comes up in the acknowledgements, so I know he’s doing it! But the Church is also the cure here. St John Paul reminds us
For those who have no natural family the doors of the great family which is the Church – the Church which finds concrete expression in the diocesan and the parish family, in ecclesial basic communities and in movements of the apostolate – must be opened even wider. No one is without a family in this world: the Church is a home and family for everyone, especially those who ‘labor and are heavy laden.’
Pope St John Paul II Familiaris Consortio
So I think there’s a challenge here – to elicit more writing from Mr Mattson. He’s come so far, and there’s so much more to do! There’s the Rosary and daily mass, there’s mens fellowships and choir. There’s a whole spiritual side to this battle that I think he’s using that wasn’t in the book. I’m leery of over-psychologizing this: that’s the weapons of the other side. We have entire armies of majestic fear and disarming beauty on our side. Elisha prayed, and said, LORD, I pray thee, open his eyes, that he may see. And the LORD opened the eyes of the young man; and he saw: and, behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire round about Elisha. (2 Kings 6:17) and we have a cloud of witnesses around us. We are never alone in this battle.
I’m getting off track. I want to close with this other thought… there’s a temptation to cave into the cultural war.
Christians are seemingly aligned with one or another side of this war, but I don’t think that’s right. Our battle is not with flesh and blood. It’s certainly not with political parties or politicians. When we let our writing (about chastity, about liturgy, about whatever…) get suckered into the political sphere, we are in danger of losing our prophetic voice. There is only one illustration in Mattson’s book. If a random reader were to pick this up in a bookstore and flip through, it’s likely that that one illustration would catch their eye – it’s the rather controversial sheet explaining gender theory to young kids. Our hypothetical shopper will, likely, judge the whole book on page 99. I’m not sure that’s a good thing. I sold an article once to Touchstone Magazine. It became the go-to thing for a time, as far as SSA was concerned. It was edited to avoid the context of a then-recent Episcopal Election in Massachusetts, and turned into a full-on broadside against the gay movement. At the time I didn’t care: cuz I got published! But later, I regretted it. Once in awhile I used to get an emails about it, but they are all some version of “See, I knew we were right…” and I think, “I never reached anyone with this, only confirmed people’s hate.”
Preaching to the choir is much easier than preaching to the Areopagus. But the latter is what is needed.
When we realize that our sins are our own dance with the devil, when we realize that our family, God’s Church, stands ready to help us, we finally have very little time to worry about the people we used to sin with save as regards their souls. In those cases, Bishop Barron is right: leading with “Disorder” may not be the best thing.
Right at the end, I wrote “no” again in the margin. The author seems to be saying “this world sucks and as soon as I can get out I can get to heaven.” No. No. No.
A quadrillion times, No.
We’re here because we have work to do. We’re here because we have to work out our salvation in fear and trembling. We’re here because we need to love, more and more and more until that love becomes a fire that consumes us and we merge into the fire of God. We’re here to be the fire that consumes the world in love. We are here to struggle against whatever our passions are so that we can learn to love first, in spite of them, then, eventually, to their cure.
One Lent, reading the Life of St Mary of Egypt in the Matins service devoted to her (in the Byzantine rite), I broke down. Another reader had to jump in and read for me. Mary realizes she spent years leading others astray. Having made that realization she prayed for them and their salvation. I’m not quite there yet, but that’s where the road to healing lies. We can’t go there if we buy into the Cultural War language of us against them which pits humans against humans. There is an us, and there is a them. We are all the humans whom God loves so much he became one of us: them are the demons. Full stop.
Three quarters of this book was so good that I want more of it. I imagine the one-quarter that seemingly caters to “our side” in the Culture War will get quoted more, though. Stuff in the one quarter needs to be said, sometimes; but I think of how little anger one can hear is when certain clergy talk about sexual sins as compared to the anger I nearly always hear coming from people in the middle of this path. We need to wait until we can speak like St Mary of Egypt.
May she pray for us.