The Gift

JMJ

ONCE UPON A TIME, back in the days when you could go to see Santa Claus in the department store and he would give you presents that were not just sticky candy, two best friends, Jimmy and Billy, went to their local Belks before Christmas. They stood patiently in line and, when their turns came, each one went into a little house made to look as if it were made out of gingerbread and told the man inside what they wanted for Christmas. What they did not know was that the man inside was actually Saint Nicholas, the Archbishop of Myra and Lycea, venerated all over the world as the patron of children, which is to say he was the real Santa Claus. I’m not sure what he was doing there, but the important thing to know is he was the real Santa Claus. As each boy was finished telling Santa Claus what they wanted for Christmas he smiled and gave each an apple. It was the same apple he’d given to all the other children in line: it was gigantic! It smelled amazing! Being polite boys they knew better than to eat it outside where they could get their clothes messy, so each took his apple home.

When Jimmy got home with his apple, he knew immediately that he wanted to eat it and share it with his family. His parents were amazed at the delicious smell it gave off and they wanted to eat it as well. It was big enough to share, so Mom and Dad and Jimmy sat down to supper, and then, for dessert, sliced up the apple and chatted as they ate. Mom added some really superb cheddar cheese which she sliced up, and, to make the evening extra special – even though it was Advent – Dad brought out a bottle of tawny port. Jimmy tried this and, at least in little sips, it was ok. When the fruit was all gone, nothing left but the core and the seeds, Mom said that this was such good tasty, fruit maybe they should plant the seeds and see if they could grow some more. Everyone agreed.

So, Jimmy got himself a project for Christmas that year. He planted the seeds into little seedling pots and waited to see what would happen. In time there were four sprouts which he took outside in the Spring and planted in the backyard. They all did very well and they became young saplings, although it was several years before they bore fruit. Not being grown in Saint Nicholas’ own garden as the first apple was, these apples, though amazingly tasty, were ordinary-sized apples. They smelled much better than the ones you could get in a store, though. Mother canned some every year and baked some into pies. These were coveted gifts even after Jimmy went off to college and then Seminary. He was called James by this time, of course. When he became a priest, he would give these apples, grown in his parents’ own back yard, to folks year after year. In time, when his parents fell asleep in the Lord, Jimmy would take breaks from ministry to go rest in the house, praying for his parents, and offer Mass for their souls in the back yard under the shade of four apple trees he never knew came from the real Santa Claus.

The story of Billy’s apple is different, though. When he reached home, he knew immediately that he would share it with his family. He and his parents were amazed at the delicious smell that it gave off: it seemed to fill the house with a sense of Christmas. They sat it on the mantle thinking they would enjoy the smell for a bit and, in the light of the Christmas Tree, it suddenly seemed to reflect, filling the room with twinkles. They were surprised the next morning to discover it still smelled like Christmas in there! They couldn’t bring themselves to eat the apple, but when friends came over – as friends do in the holiday season (even though it is Advent) – everyone commented on the beautiful smell. Billy’s house seemed to be especially filled with the Christmas Spirit that year. And, when Epiphany came round and it was time to take down the decorations and move on with regular things, Billy and his parents realized this was something of a magical apple (although they didn’t know the giver was the real Santa Claus) and they placed it away gently in a small wooden box filled with excelsior, and they stored it safely.

When they took it out the following year it was still whole, fresh, and smelled like Christmas. Year after year the apple from Santa Claus continued to fill their house with hospitality and Christmas spirit. Invitations to their house at the Holidays were almost like being invited to a royal banquet. Billy’s family was known for their generous table and their love and care for their guests all year round, but never so much as at Christmas time. And didn’t the house literally smell like Christmas?

In time, when his parents fell asleep in the Lord, Billy inherited the house – and the apple. He was called William, by this time, of course. He and his wife and their children were known far and wide for their hospitality in this house that was filled with the smell of Christmas. They knew it was a magic apple, of course, and Billy knew it was given to him one day when his parents took him to Belks, but they never knew that man in the mall was Saint Nicholas, who always gives gifts anonymously.

And then goes away quietly to pray for us.

Day 151: Parthenos

JMJ

But I would have you without carefulness. He that is unmarried careth for the things that belong to the Lord, how he may please the Lord: But he that is married careth for the things that are of the world, how he may please his wife.
– St Paul, I Corinthians 7:32-33

THESE THREE ESSAYS BEGAN with a High School remembrance from my discernment process while in the Episcopal Church. I was only just beginning to “discover” sex at that point in my life. Like all things misused, it can get out of control. The next essay was the learnings from misuse. All of this started, though, from that coversation in Clerically Speaking which I mentioned on Day 149. It left me meditating on the connection – and then the disconnect – between Marriage and Celibacy. These two paths are available to the Christian. There is no vocation to “the single life” although one does not need to be “under vows” to be a “eunuch for the kingdom of heaven”, neither can one just be “chillin’ but not married.” At best, one must be either working on one’s self for marriage or working on one’s self for celibacy. It was Father Harrison and Father Anthony that made the connection for me. I have written in the past that “virginity can be lost, but chastity can be restored.” My two ghostly fathers said, no, in fact, living a fully celibate life and making a commitment to it is a restoration of virginity. And then I remembered the Greek word used to describe the Most Holy Theotokos, παρθένος parthenos. Not only is this a title of the Blessed Virgin, it is also a title for the goddess Athena. It is from this title that the temple in Athens, the Parthenon, gets its name.

It is this word, parthenos, that is used in the Septuagint to translate Isaiah’s troublesome word, almah. Does that mean virgin or just young woman? In the Septuagint, coming with all the cultural implications of Athena, the Greek at least intends to imply virgin. But virgin how? Occult commentaries on the Greek Pagan world have tended to suggest that parthenos implies self-contained, or all-in-one. The virgin, therefore, be they a man or woman, is not necessarily someone who has never had sex but rather someone who is living in (or having restored) their self-integrity. The Fathers of the Clerical Pod are talking about men and women who are, by choice, living as parthenos.

St Paul, quoted at the beginning of this article, says that it is the unmarried man who is concerned with the things of the Lord. Saint Paul uses the Greek word ἄγαμος agamos which literally means without-marriage, not someone who has never had sex. Traditionally that has been understood as before marriage, but it can also be descriptive of anyone who is living outside of the bonds of matrimony, either through widowhood or choice. The problem is that for some folks in this world, living outside of marriage is not chosen for their spiritual growth but rather for their spiritual dalliance. In a conversation a with a friend of mine over pizza on a recent “cheat day” from my diet: he noted that some single, ordained men are celibate while others are merely bachelors. They both obey the Church’s rules on sex, but something divides them. Later, using those exact words a Dominican priest posted the same distinction on Facebook. Fr Harrison and Fr Anthony also took this up in an earlier episode of their podcast.

In the Courage to be Chaste, Fr Benedict Groeschel, CFR, recognizes that there’s a type of person who just stopped having sex because they can’t anymore. Perhaps they’re too old, or unattractive to the people around them, or maybe they’re scared.  Whatever the reason they stop having sex. Father Benedict finds this very disturbing: he recognizes that they’re following the rules, they may even have chosen to follow the rules, but in the end, they’re only not-having sex. Christian chastity requires the full integration of the human person’s sexuality into the human person’s spiritual life – parthenos. Marriage is one way to express Chastity. Celibacy is equally a way to express this full integration of the human person’s sexuality into his spiritual life.

Recent events, especially the medical quarantine, have underscored that I can stay alone and follow the rules. However, alone is not the same thing as celibate. Being alone simply means alone: free to do whatever I want. I can come and go as I please, free. Cool. However, this is a bachelor’s life. I have been living as a bachelor for much of my adult life. I have my obligations, which I meet, do my work, go to church. Then I am free to be me; doing whatever. This is bachelorhood. Sometimes you read about The Eccentric Old Man as a stereotypical citizen of San Francisco. I was, honestly, well on my way to being that. I don’t want that life.

There is a way in which such a man is “chaste”, as Fr benedict notes, without relying on the graces of the virtue of chastity. It follows the law, but there is no Spirit. Following the rules, alone, is not a way to Salvation. 

Marriage is about a graced commitment to an exclusive love. Celibacy is about a graced expression of a diffuse, universal, love. Bachelorhood, if you will, is about neither. The Bachelor can love you or not. He can commit or walk away. Anyone can stumble on the path to virtue, but a bachelor might decide, tomorrow, you know, this isn’t working for me. It’s “discerning a vocation to the single life”. I can stay here, but maybe I can move on. Marriage is a commitment. Celibacy is as well. “The Single Life”, Bachelorhood, is shenanigans.

When I reached a decision to bring my sexuality into my spiritual life as an integral whole, to adhere to the Church’s revealed teaching on sexuality, I realized the way, not to simply follow the rules, but to give my entire self to God; so that God, through me, could give his love to other people. Celibacy, like marriage, is a vocation:  a way to live the Christian Life in the world through God’s grace manifesting his kingdom here by means of our human sexuality. Vocation, here, does not mean “magical calling” that God gave me one day like a voice from off-camera in a TV Sitcom. Vocation here means “my job.” It’s a choice, the choice is “follow the church’s teaching this way… or follow the church’s teaching the other way.”

Celibacy, then is a way to integrate the entire human life into the Gospel and escape (or undo) bachelorhood. The energies that were once used inappropriately or mistakenly are now offered up in this daily sacramental action. The charism doesn’t protect one from falling, nor does it provide a handrail to hold on to with white knuckles, but it means that there is a key with which to unlock a whole other realm of action. Using the key everything around one is still the same: it is the self who is different. One becomes Parthenos. Hospitality is not an accident nor is it an obligation: rather it’s a gift. Celibacy allows the Parthenos to make an hospitable gift of self and of all. It allows one to make a sacramental action with everything around and with everything that one is, everything that one hope to be in God’s grace.

Self-gift is the meaning of love. Bachelorhood means I can give to you if I choose to, if feel like it but I’m not obligated. You may give to me something, I might give something back to you. Celibacy says I’m free to give away everything without expecting return because unlocking that secret, hidden realm means that in God’s grace I never run out: it’s no longer me giving. The cure for the “ungood” state of bachelorhood (It is not good for the earthling to be alone, says God to themself) is a commitment to communion, to love. We are either working towards this or not. I’ve known people in their 50s to be graced with a marriage towards which they were working that long. But I’ve known people in their 20s working towards neither salvation because of a great fear of missing out. They are afraid to take the risk either way – hurting others on the path as they go.

Vowed celibacy is neither a guard nor a “magical” protection against sexual sin. That protection is only in and through God’s grace. We are powerless to do anything without Christ. Neither steadfast faithfulness in sacramental marriage nor continual celibacy are possible otherwise. Neither of these are simply following the rules – but rather participation in grace. To paraphrase the Tao Teh Ching, water flows downward because that’s its proper, natural course. “Leaning in” to the vocation of celibacy means that this becomes my proper, natural course, my supranatural course, which I can follow only if I let God’s grace lead me there.

In this world, the choice for a celibate life is like marriage but in fact higher than marriage. Celibacy points to the kingdom in which we are to be, like the Angels, neither married nor given in marriage. Celibacy is laying aside the tools of this life in this life and living, as the Eastern Church puts it, the life of the Angels here and now. Celibacy requires the exact same self-gift that marriage requires. However, celibacy does not have the benefit of the sexual union of one person with one other person: the tool of the conjugal union is no longer an option. Instead, celibacy requires agape, eros, and philia to be all turned God-ward for the salvation of others. All of the human race, under our Father God, become our storge. Celibacy demands of her adherents a continual gift of self not limited by the same strictures that enclose marital love within a monogamous union. Instead, this love is to be given to all with the same intensity of eros and agape that arise within a marriage. We are called to the same desire for union and the same sacrifice as the married couple, but we are free to be concerned about the things of the Lord – everyone.

Ideally, a married person learns love in the school of love – the Christian family – and then carries that grace to the world. They can do this because God’s grace flows through their family and outward. What they offer to others is replenished by God’s grace when they “go home at night”. Celibacy calls her children to rely only on God for the continual replenishment of the same internal resources without the comfort of someone to go home to at night. It is the DIY School of Love: throw yourself into service, learn to love the hard way – without being loved back. Marriage unlocks the Love of God to flow through one to one spouse in a continual act of self-emptying, and thence to one’s children. Celibacy unlocks this same Grace so that God’s love can flow, self-emptying through one to all. Meaning no scandal at all, as Agape is Eros, Marriage is God’s monogamous love, celibacy is God’s polyamorous love.


HOW WE MOVE FORWARD in our lives from this choice between monogamy and polyamory is the working out of our salvation. Our self-gift must be poured out as the Father is, as Christ is, as the Spirit is. Until we are the chalice of the Mass filled to overflowing with blessings for others, we are not yet fully begun on the way, although within time we are always beginners. Until we select the path for ἄγαμος (without-marriage) or γαμος (marriage), we are not yet on the path: we have to pick in order to know how to go. Only then can we know how we are to be ordered toward the Good we have chosen.

God’s plan for you is your salvation: however he waits for your choice.

Let us then begin in Love.

So, about this wall…

JMJ

The Readings for Friday in the 5th Week of Easter (B2)

Vos autem dixi amicos : quia omnia quaecumque audivi a Patre meo, nota feci vobis. 
I have called you friends: because all things whatsoever I have heard of my Father, I have made known to you. 

One thing I often heard in dating relationships was that I have “bad boundaries”. After many years in failed relationships I finally learned what these were in the course of two conversations divided by 5 years. In one, a friend was telling me about a certain “Creepy” sort of person who one might meet who wants to become close friends as a result of a sexual encounter. In another conversation, a different friend, was telling me he was never that sort of person. He always had “good boundaries”. Both of these folks wondered why anyone wanted to be emotionally intimate just because sex had happened. I realized I was the person they were speaking about: the one that thinks sex must imply some sort of connection.

In The Lost Language of Cranes the protagonist, Philip Benjamin, has a falling out with his romantic partner who tells him “you need me too much. Half way across this city in the middle of the day I can feel you needing me.” Or words to that effect. I saw this once when it was on PBS in the early 90s, so I may not have the worlds right, but that scene stuck with me. Haunted me. In fact in my memory it’s the only words I can remember from the movie. But exactly what’s wrong with needing someone? Decades later when relationships were ending I’d still say I don’t get it… what’s wrong with needing someone? 


I have called you friends because whatever I’ve learned from my father I’ve made known to you.

As a hopeless romantic, I always had bad boundaries. And I have often wondered why that was (even before I had the terms down). Why did I “fall in love” or become emotionally attached? What if, however, these terms are intentionally in divine logic? What if what is generally seen as an enjoyable biological function is, in fact, a deeply spiritual and kenotic act of self-destruction? Would it not be natural for there to be no boundaries after it?

Jesus shares literally all of himself with us: body, blood, soul, and divinity. He shares with us all that the Father has given him and names us as friends, using a Greek word (philos) that implies non-sexual relationships based on common experience. The implication that there is a huge amount of intimacy, of union, that comes long, long before physical intimacy happens. Letting sex come first (which does happen from time to time) and yet denying the rest of intimacy: that is the odd choice. As Robert Anton Wilson makes clear in the Illuminatus trilogy, as well as in Schrodinger’s Cat: the Universe Next Door, sex is the ultimate breaking down of the boundaries, the end of the division, the unitive wholeness of humanity. Saying, at that point, “you need me too much” is like the river saying it shouldn’t need water. Having opened that door, slamming it shut again is the real bad boundary. 

At the end of this Gospel reading, Jesus says we should love one another, using a different Greek word now: agape. Unlike philia which is based on common experience, Agape is an act of will, and it is not something we can do alone: it is possible only by God’s love through us. Our love tends to be about gratification and validation. God’s love is about self-pouring out – into us, to overflowing and then out of us into others.

The intimacy offered to us in friendship, or even in the sexual union, is only a foretaste of the intimacy made available to us in the act of Eucharistic Communion. Here the divine fire of heaven enters our spiritual and physical bodies to destroy all that is not of the same divine origin. Uniting us fully and finally to the source and summit of that fire. The act of communion is the sacramental union of your soul with the divine dance at the end of Dante’s Paradiso XXXIII

ma già volgeva il mio disio e ’l vellesì come rota ch’igualmente è mossa,l’amor che move il sole e l’altre stelle. (Par. 33.143-45)

but my desire and will were moved already—like a wheel revolving uniformly—bythe Love that moves the sun and the other stars.

A final note. When Dante reaches the end of his vision and is granted the sight of the universe bound together in one volume, what entrances him is not plain Oneness but all that multiplicity somehow contained and unified. His heart is set on seeing and knowing that multiplicity, an otherness that is still stubbornly present in the poem’s penultimate word. God is the love that moves the sun and the other stars: “l’amor che move ’l sole e l’altre stelle”.
Much has been written about the transcendent stelle with which the Commedia ends; let us give due weight as well to the adjective that modifies those stars, the poem’s penultimate word, altre. Dante believes in a transcendent One, but his One is indelibly characterized by the multiplicity, difference, and sheer otherness embodied in the “altre stelle”—an otherness by which he is still unrepentantly captivated in his poem’s last breath. (Source)

We, dear sisters and brothers, are to be those altre stelle, the other stars moving in God’s light. The act of theosis will burn down all the walls left. We move from friends to lovers of the Divine source of Love. Heaven is an infinite dance without boundaries.