Fellowship of St Mary of Egypt

I am a member of Courage, and while I find their ministry in my life a great blessing, I’m struggling with my presence there. I have trouble with the 12 Step Model when we’re not trying to address an addiction (there is some overlap with the SA groups in town). It does provide a forum for folks, but not much teaching. I fidget a lot when someone doubts the teachings of the church and no one is allowed to offer advice or correction.
The Church’s teaching function is important here: setting it aside is not pastoral at all. I don’t need therapy: I need podvig, ascesis, jihad. I need the holy struggle for sainthood. And so I also struggle with this therapeutic model as there’s no spirituality there. The Angelic Warfare Confraternity addresses the missing spirituality aspect very much, but members of the AWC tend to be in isolation. One thing missing from both of these is the idea of a “sponsor” you can call and ask for help when you’re struggling in a tight spot right now. Where is this group? I was a sexually active man and I was having a lot of fun. I saw my fun was hurting others all the time. When I looked deeper, I saw it was hurting me too. Looking deeper still, I saw others were using my fun as an excuse for their own hurts, their own hurting of others. At the same time we were all hurting the faith – our faith and the faith of others.
Then I saw the Church, grace-filled and merciful, forgiving us and offering a way out of that: literally, out. (Not a cure… don’t get me wrong)
Where is a group that will help me live into the Church and her way of being and when I say “ouch” the group will give me a nice neck rub or else a good slap and say, “but you know this is the best thing for you… get back in there and keep fighting.” I didn’t wake up one day and hate being gay. I just realized this not my being, there had to be a real way to be. There was the Church. And I need help: friends, co-strugglers, fellow travelers.
The life of our holy mother, Mary of Egypt is not well known in the west although her feast day is the same day on both Eastern and Western calendars (and it coincides with Easter this year).
This Vita is read liturgically during the Great Canon of St Andrew of Crete at Matins on the Thursday before the Fifth Sunday of Lent. It’s a long text. Reading the Canon makes this one of the the Longest Services of the Byzantine Liturgical Year.

It is also one of my two favourites.

The last time I was appointed to read a portion of the Vita, written by St Sophronius, I was unable to finish when, reading this paragraph, I was overcome:

Shamelessly, as usual, I mixed with the crowd, saying, `Take me with you to the place you are going to; you will not find me superfluous.’ I also added a few more words calling forth general laughter. Seeing my readiness to be shameless, they readily took me aboard the boat. Those who were expected came also, and we set sail at once. How shall I relate to you what happened after this? Whose tongue can tell, whose ears can take in all that took place on the boat during that voyage! And to all this I frequently forced those miserable youths even against their own will. There is no mentionable or unmentionable depravity of which I was not their teacher. I am amazed, Abba, how the sea stood our licentiousness, how the earth did not open its jaws, and how it was that hell did not swallow me alive, when I had entangled in my net so many souls.

My friend, Fr A, had to step in and finish reading for me while I went to the corner and mourned my sins. Look, it’s a long text. I’m not going to torture you with it. But I suggest you read The life of our holy mother, Mary of Egypt nonetheless. Bookmark it. It might take a while. Prayerfully move through it. You may find some portion of your journey there. Or you may not. I don’t care what orientation you feel you have, or what your life looks like even now. If you find yourself somewhere in the middle of her story and crave, deeply, to also find yourself in the end of her story, reach out. Let’s see what we can do to help each other.

Pray for me at least.

I’m on Facebook. I’m on Twitter. I’ve been on gmail so long my email address is my [first initial][last name] at gmail dot com.

(Notes: Irony of a Prayer Fellowship named after a hermitess…)

God’s Family Servants.

The Holy Family Window, St Joseph, a young Jesus, and the BVM.

Today’s readings:

The greatest among you must be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled; but whoever humbles himself will be exalted.
Matthew 23:12

Continuing from yesterday, where Lust is the fruit of Pride, we have today’s reading on humility. Yes, the whole Father-Teacher-Master package is about humility. And it could be about “titles” and the claim that we should have none as Christians, but this is not true. From the earliest, Paul spoke of himself as his disciples’ Father – and even allowing that they may have many fathers, but he was their Father in the spirit. The Church has always had titles and offices, functions within the community. I may disagree with you about what those titles mean but you will agree with me that we’ve always had titles: Presbyteros, Episkopos, Dulos, Apostolos, etc. Our community functions in an hierarchy: which doesn’t mean “some are better than/more important than others” but rather “rule” (archy) “of priests” (hieros). Yet Jesus says: the greatest must serve. Jesus embodies this, washing our feet. Jesus calls us to this service.

How, mindful, again, of lust and pride, does this work for us?  Let’s look at the next three prayers from the Angelic Warfare Confraternity:

For our imagination, that we may be preserved from any fantasies that defile us, that all impure images may vanish, and that we may be protected from all the assaults of demons. 

For our memory, that no memories of past experiences may disturb us in any way, but that the Lord may touch and heal us through hope for a better future. 

For our estimation, that we may quickly sense dangers to chastity and instinctively flee from them, that we may never turn away from higher, more difficult, and more honorable goods for the sake of sinful self-indulgence.

If we read carefully, these three prayers are about the future, the past, and the present, respectively.  We ask God not to let us be troubled with the future, not to let us be haunted by the past, and – most importantly – not to be tripped up in the present. You know, we have all sinned in the past. The future doesn’t exist. The question is where will you be now? What are you doing, now?

Pride plans the future. Pride exults in the past. Pride is not having a conversation – pride is planning a rebuttal. Pride is not listening in the present: pride is grinding the past down to counter attack in the future.

Yet our sins are only in the present.

Mindful what I said yesterday about pride denying intimacy and creating a passionate addiction, here’s the method: yes we sinned in the past, wasn’t that fun? Let’s plan something interesting in the future! (And I can tell you how often those plans do NOT come to fruition.) But what does happen is something by the way, the sex of happenstance, in the present: a hookup app or a personal ad. And Boom. Our plans waylaid, our memories hijacked, we sin only in the present. Yet consent was given to that sin in our planning and our ruminating. Our pride has given birth to something way less exciting than we had imagined. Yet if we recap the story around the watercooler – or even in our diary – wow how awesome!

Who would be first, must be servant to all.

We cannot be a servant if we’re planning to have sex, or to get a promotion, or to get something else “out of” them. It can even seem to be very innocent. It may only be a crush, but if it’s not what it supposed to be – chastity, love, service – then something’s going wrong. Wash away our sins with justice: which, in this case, is service, humility, redressing the wrongs done.

Some folks have asked me about coming into the Catholic Church at a time such as now, when there is seeming chaos. Of course I laugh: I’ve been around enough blocks to know that there is chaos everywhere. If it’s not the Papal Monarchy, it’s the constant infighting and simony of the petty city states of Orthodoxy, or the chaotically heretical, Everyone’s a Pope world of Protestantism.  If I didn’t believe that the Holy Spirit is running the Church I’d be off in the mountains someplace, hiding, or else learning the I Ching and being Shinto (actually, that’s probably more like it).

Pope Francis (whose four year anniversary was yesterday) has struck me since the very beginning, as worthy of his Patron Saint. So, to be honest, have Popes Benedict and St John Paul II. I’ve never known the possibility that the leader of such an empire could be so humble.  And yet I’ve seen it three times in my lifetime.  Yes, Francis can go off-topic sometimes and cause toes to curl, but he’s no Medici. Yes, he can raise a few eyebrows, but he’s no Avignon Papacy. I’m not worried.Benedict XVI is the scholar of that tradition, John Paul had a gift for bringing that scholarship to the masses. Francis has a gift for going to the masses. God sends the Church what she needs when she needs it. These three servants of the servants of God have been blessings to the world since St John Paul was elected in October 1978.

These men, of course, are not the only ones – such leaders are not found only in the Catholic Church or even only in Christianity. Yet, they seem to be always found in the religious world: never among the “spiritual but not religious” nor among the secular. Humility (like chastity) is not a value highly sought in the world.  We would do well to learn from these men what it means to be humble – even with great power; what it means to be a servant, – even when a leader.

If we tie our memories down, if we sacrifice our dreams: if we live only in the present, then we can be humble servants, like our Lady and St Joseph. Then we can be servants at their table, of all their guests.

The Dream

I was sitting in the second seat on a bus taking notes. Someone was in the first seat. The bus was stopped in a parking lot.

The driver got off the bus and the buss started to roll forward. I was not scared: the bus would stop from the little rise in front of us. But it didn’t. It crested the rise and rolled down the hill in front of us. I thought, that guy in the first seat should get up and stop the bus. But he did not.

Near the bottom of the hill was a curb or ledge of stone. I thought the bus will stop at that curb. We should brace for impact.

It broke the curb and left the road we had been on. And kept going. I should get up I thought, and hit the brakes. But I did not: I saw, ahead some train tracks and I thought we’d hit those and lose momentum. So I sat tight. We did not stop: instead we hit the tracks and turned to ride them! Now we were going quite fast. Ahead there was a fork in the track – and I was suddenly aware of a train behind us as well. We took the left fork, as the gold and white metro-liner veered right and sped off into the distance.

The left spur dead-ended in water and we splashed into it… floating down river.

I woke and instantly realized this is how temptations, especially lust, pornography and self-abuse, all work.

If You’re in Love, Show Me.

Today’s Readings:

  • 1 John 3:11-21
  • John 1:43-51

In the Douay, the RSV, or the NABRE together with other Mass texts.

You were not to be like Cain, who took his character from the evil one, and murdered his brother. Why did he murder him? Because his own life was evil, and his brother’s life was acceptable to God. No, brethren, do not be surprised that the world should hate you.
1 John 3:12-13 (Knox)

Murder for one’s faith is not very common in the USA, especially if one is a Christian. Apart from some social ostracization we’re not likely to experience anything much at all, yet.

Recently there has been a revival of the Sanctuary Movement. As the Wiki notes, “The Sanctuary Movement was a religious and political campaign in the United States that began in the early 1980s to provide safe-haven for Central American refugees fleeing civil conflict. It responded to federal immigration policies that made obtaining asylum difficult for Central Americans.” And, since part of the stated mindsets of the incoming administration as well as its supporters has been opposition to immigration, registering, and deportation, Sanctuary seems perfect for a movement of Churches and Christians concerned about justice. This will, of course, cause them to be reviled by the Administration, but one would imagine this would make them a friend to others.

Yeah, not so much.

A friend (not of the Church-going sort) posted on his Facebook about the revival of the Sanctuaries and instantly he was given a reply: since churches are involved it will only be heterosexual immigrants that they care for. The mainline, liberal denominations are already lumped in with other, more traditional sorts, in the popular mindset, despite 60+ years of caving in to “relevance”. In fact, as the Episcopal Church was moving forward as one of the most gay-friendly of communities, I had a fight with fellow students at NYU when a local parish posted the words of John the Baptist on their reader board, “Make straight in the desert a highway,” etc. This was in 1985 when ECUSA was setting up AIDS ministries and whatall. In NYC where the then-bishop had been most outspoken about his support for gays.  Didn’t matter: once you hate Christians it doesn’t matter what sort of Christians you have.

Today’s verses then should not come as a surprise for us. If you’ve committed to live your life being acceptable to God you will be contrary to social norms. My fear has never been of the political sorts in our country, to be honest, but of the religious sorts who are caving in to societal norms all over the place. I think, at some point, we may see a political power play where the more mainline folks turn over confessing Christians in order to keep their tax exemptions and their access to the corridors of power. It has ever been this way, in Germany, in Communist countries, in other totalitarian dictatorships, so it’s easy to imagine it here. The power may be leftist with Episcopalians, or rightist with Evangelicals and Fundamentalists. Either way confessing Christians with their social actions, their sacraments, and their sexual morals won’t fit in.

So the first of the 15 Aves in the Angelic Warfare Confraternity has us pray with this intention:

For our social and cultural climate, that it may be purified of everything contrary to chastity, and that we may have the strength to resist the pressures of prevailing ideologies.

Chastity is about sexual purity, yes, and much of our culture is tuned to the contrary frequency. However chastity is not only pressured by sexual ideologies: educational ones, commercials, political parties, a general cultural opposition to responsibility, a bias toward hedonism, a loss of joy, a philosophical embrace of nihilistic darkness; these all conspire against this virtue. Privatizing religion helps us towards a less chaste culture as well: religion that has no place in the public sphere, that has nothing to say about public ethics. Literature that glorifies sexual “exploration” even within marriage, or ideas about sex that have only the goal of “satisfaction” in mind all pressure us to discard this virtue. Mindful that Chastity includes the virtue of procreation and the proper use of the sexual gift, think of how many ways even married couples are tempted. In our modern culture almost all non-Catholic religions support the use of birth control.  Even traditional ones, like Eastern Orthodoxy, allow it with a don’t-ask, don’t-tell policy.

Shielding against this the prayer calls on the Virgin Mother of God for aid that we might resist these challenges, but also that our culture may be purified. And St John adds, Filioli mei, non diligamus verbo neque lingua, sed opere et veritate. (1 John 3:18) Msgr Knox renders this as, “My little children, let us shew our love by the true test of action, not by taking phrases on our lips.”  The “love” there is the verbal form of Agape, that divine love that is God. Here is this love in action on our hands. Let us act-out-love not only in the uttering of phrases.

In a culture so dead set against true love, what is our action? How do we find a way to make real love present in the world?

It starts with prayer and the reformation of our own lives. Let us see where it takes us.

Poetic Justice

Today’s readings:

  • 1 John 3:7-10
  • John 1:35-42

In the Douay, the RSV, or the NABRE with other Mass Texts.

In hoc manifesti sunt filii Dei, et filii diaboli. Omnis qui non est justus, non est ex Deo, et qui non diligit fratrem suum:
This, then, is how God’s children and the devil’s children are known apart. A man cannot trace his origin from God if he does not live right, if he does not love his brethren.
1 John 3:10 (Knox)

St John says he who does not poion dikaiosynen is not of God. He was does not live right is not on the path. The Apostolic epistles of like this idea of “living right”. It is beyond important – it is the center of Christian spirituality. It’s here, I think, in the use of this word ποιέω poieo – do or make.  It’s the same word from whence we get “poet”.  Hold that thought. It’s about doing, about a way of action it is, in some obvious respects, exactly “works righteousness” that so many Protestants want us to avoid. There is something to do here.

(Side note, this “poieo” word occurs 572 times in the NT. There’s a word study worth doing!)

That word δικαιοσύνη dikaiosyne means justice. In the LXX it’s the Greek word used for the Hebrew tzadek צֶדֶק.  It’s how one describes straight paths, just balances, or fair laws. You, my dear Christian heart, are expected to live that way. We are called to do justice (see footnote, re: Micah 6:8), to be Poets of Justice. Justice does not mean, “do whatever you want and we will write laws to defend you in your selfishness.” Justice, rather, means walking along God’s straight and narrow path. If it’s not found there, it’s not justice at all. It maybe what you want, crave, or are addicted to – but it’s not just for you to have it nor for someone else to provide it or permit you.

The other side of that coin – of course – is that the works do not make us righteous. They are the sign of our righteousness, of our walking with God. You can’t just say “I believe” here and let it all pass. You have to be doing something or nothing is happening. But we don’t do these works of ourselves, more on that later.

St John ties living right in with loving our brother. As I posted a few days ago, that’s not philia, it’s not friendship with our brother it’s agape: that divine love that moves us all to perfection. This is not the apathetic, bland tolerance that passes for “non-judgemental love” today, leaving us in our sins and our weaknesses. This love calls, pushes, jabs, and dances us forward. As for this verse to be living right is loving our brother then to be this poet of justice is to move our brothers and sisters into that justice too.

Truly poetic justice semper reformare me est – is always reforming me – but not only me. If this music is singing out it should move all around me into the divine Dance of self-emptying.

Lately I’ve been praying the prayers of The Angelic Warfare Confraternity. Those of you who know me will know this is a needed discipline for me. There are two prayers (one asking for the intercession of St Thomas Aquinas and one written by him) then one says 15 Aves a day for specific intentions. As time and the assigned readings permit over the coming 6 weeks or so prior to Lent I want to look at these prayers and intentions. This is where I find this Poetic Justice singing out in my life just now.

For today, then, a look at the first of the prayers. This one, written by Thomas Aquinas, will give us a hint about the poetic justice of this passage from St John.

Dear Jesus, I know that every perfect gift, and especially that of chastity, depends on the power of Your providence. Without You a mere creature can do nothing. Therefore, I beg You to defend by Your grace the chastity and purity of my body and soul. And if I have ever imagined or felt anything that could stain my chastity and purity, blot it out, Supreme Lord of my powers, that I may advance with a pure heart in Your love and service, offering myself on the most pure altar of Your divinity all the days of my life. Amen.

Every perfect gift depends on the providence of God: we have no virtue of ourselves, without God’s grace. This poetry is not written on themes of our own devising. Forgive me, but there is no Jazz here. There is, however, unfolding, an exploration of themes or leitmotifs as in a great opera. What we here God saying to us we say in our own lives by his grace. The Angelic Warfare Confraternity is about chastity and sexual purity. Yet, the concept applies for all the virtues: they arise and grow within us from God’s gift. We must offer ourselves for it, in order to “advance with a pure heart in God’s love and service.”

We must become poets by learning from the first (and only) Poet. We become just at the very fount of justice. We become chaste praying to the very author of chastity. And as we acquire that salvation, so too those around us will share in it.

By way of footnote: this is not, as I expected, the same phrase that’s used in Micah 6:8 – “do Justice”. there is a translation of the Hebrew implying “make good judgements in court”. That’s a different concept than tzadek or dikaiosyne.