Under a Loving Gaze

JMJ

THE ANGELIC WARFARE Confraternity has its members promise to say a certain set of prayers every day. In addition to invoking the aid of Jesus and St Thomas Aquinas (the Confraternity’s patron), the members also pray 15 Hail Mary’s for specific intentions. Recently the intentions have evolved into 15 little prayers but it is the intentions, themselves that have been the topic of my meditations. (I think that at an even earlier stage it was just 15 Hail Mary’s and a daily self examination, but I’m not sure.) I’ve been about this business for 4 years now: I was doing this before I became Catholic. This mostly-daily meditation continues to yield fruit.

Intentions 1-4 have recently been unfolding into a complex pattern for me. All of these seem to involve how we interact with the world. We pray for:

  1. Our cultural climate;
  2. Our relationships;
  3. Our modesty; and
  4. Our five senses.

It is possible to read these intercessions as dealing with people and things outside our control, as if we are asking God to fix these. In fact the recent prayer adaptations seem to strengthen this reading. I think that fails in that my salvation is never about how others act. In fact a lot of St Paul’s letters are about how my actions affect others. This comes up when we are thinking about modesty (if we do it right) but even that idea often gets spun into “what others do to me”. How often have talks about modesty been spun into “women shouldn’t wear tight dresses because it bothers the boys”? An entirely different reading arises if we think of all these in first person.

While much can be said about our cultural climate, pointing out our production of and addiction to adult content on the internet, our sexualization of just about everything, and our polymorphous perversity shrouded under a dysfunctional veil of Puritanism, the Church does not ask God to fix the world: rather God has put the Church in the world to evangelize. So a prayer that says “God, fix this!” would be out of keeping with the tradition. We might pray for the strength to resist it, but our purpose, as Christians, is to draw folks out of that system into the Kingdom of God. Since such evangelism is an act of Love, that is what should color not only our read of the first intention, but of all four. This is act of love directed outwards to others. The prayer for the culture is better seen, pace Bp Robert Barron, as begging God to show us openings, places where we can break in to help others escape.

As penance once, I was told to pray for pornographers. Let this idea grow. It can be about praying for those who struggle, but also about those who distribute, for those who produce it, those who are addicted, those who are trapped inside it, and those who feel there is no other way to get through life. I just do this so I can feel something has become a cri de coeur on the internet in these days of lock-down. Sometimes we may all go through life looking for something that makes us feel. This is our climate right now in which we are not only likely to use pixels on the screen as erotic feedback. We are just as likely to forget that all of our relationships (even on Zoom) actually involve persons created in God’s image.

So next we pray for our relationships, but for Christians this is not a matter of individual choice. “It is not good for man to be alone,” said God in the Garden. We are, in the image of God, created for communion. There is almost no such thing as an “individual”. Our whole personality, our experience of reality, our idea of self is mediated through others. When we try to define reality “internally” we end up in psychosis and disorder. Paul’s letters as well as the Gospels continue to expand this trinitarian anthropology. Each of us is to be kenotic, that is, self-emptying. We not only cannot define or create ourselves, we cannot change our nature, which is to pour out ourselves in the service of others. We can corrupt our nature, we can distort it, but we cannot undo it. In the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus tells us that it doesn’t matter who is in “good relationships” with us – we must put ourselves in the role of neighbor to everyone. Christians are to be the ones who go out in Love to the world.

Again this puts the lie to any attempt to read these intentions as “God, fix this!” That is a cry of defeat: I cannot live virtuously until God fixes things. In fact, the reverse is true: living virtuously is the beginning of God fixing things. When we begin by letting God fix our hearts, he will follow through by using us to help restore others. If my actions cause you to fall, then I have damaged our relationship. Equally, if I let you lead me into sin, I have again damaged our relationship. Always remember that a sexual sin costs two souls. When we pray for our relationships we don’t pray that God will take us away from those who could lead us into sin (although that may be needed sometimes) we pray rather that we may lead them to God. Yes, this may make them back away: but that’s the risk of the Gospel. I am not only responsible for my soul, I am responsible for yours as well.

In this light, now, we pray for our modesty. I have written elsewhere about how clothing and how important it is that we be mindful of our brothers and sisters in our clothing choice. Even that is an act of love. But there is another aspect: for people will dress immodestly, that is true. Others will just “be hot” in our estimation. We must have a modest gaze. We must have, as the ancients said, custody of our eyes – in fact of all our senses.

Do not begin by saying, “God fix this!” instead We Begin by presenting [y]our bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is [y]our reasonable service (Romans 12:1). St Paul’s “reasonable service” is λογικὴν λατρείαν logikeyn latreian logical worship or, better, “worship in logical way”. We are called to bring our bodies into order. “Casting down imaginations, and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ.” (2 Corinthians 10:5). This is a life-long struggle, but it begins with the modest gaze: to have not only custody of our eyes but of the thoughts that arise from what we see.

And to highlight this, the next intention is for all our senses. It is entirely possible for music or art, what literature or politics, movies and television – of course – but also for advertisements on the street, conversations on the internet, etc, all to arouse our passions. And not just sexual passion either! Things that inspire gluttony or self-indulgence it is possible to let ourselves go in so many ways but this is not our logical worship. This is not offering our bodies as a holy and living sacrifice. And Saint Paul even calls out the Corinthians for their drunkenness and their gluttony because by doing so the rich exclude the poor and they exclude them from communion with Christ. So it is today for us that our gluttony might injure others in their poverty. We deny the image of God in them.

Our history is full of the fiscal success of our country built on the backs of the poor. It is true that without indentured servitude, slavery, and wage inequity our country would never be as great as it is today. That we use our country’s success as a defense for our slavery is a sign of our own sin that we refuse to admit. No full stop. We would not be where we are today. But at what cost did we get here? The same is true of other sins. Lust, gluttony, envy, hate, fear, oppression, and death. These all arise from denying the love that we owe to our brothers and sisters.

All of these intersections can be gathered under the banner of a loving gaze. We must see the world through the eyes of God’s love. To do that we must be self-sacrificing: giving up the legal fictions of “rights” and “privilege” in the name of service to others. We must give up those functions of society and secular order that we invoke to “keep us safe”. Ad we must risk our lives to save the souls of others in love. Christians have no rights to demand, only to give up in love.

Again, this is not something we can do on our own: we can only do this with and for God’s help, and with and for each other. The other intercessions of the Angelic Warfare Confraternity arise from the matrix: it’s not about the first person – me – at all. My chastity and my purity do not arise from me, but from sacrifice for others, in love.

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.

Day 150: Self Gift

Picking up from yesterday’s post

JMJ

BUT COVET EARNESTLY THE BETTER GIFTS: and yet shew I unto you a more excellent way (I Corinthians 12:31). With this promise of showing us a more excellent way, Saint Paul opens the passage in 1st Corinthians known as the Love Chapter. He goes on to explain all the ways that Love is:

Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.

I Corinthians 13:4-8a

You’ve heard the whole thing if you’ve been to a Christian wedding in almost any denomination: it’s a pretty standard text for such an event. But the love that Saint Paul is talking about here is not the Greek word for familial love, storge, nor is it the Greek word for sexual love, eros, but rather it is the Greek word for divine love or charity, agape. This point, too, is very common at a Christian wedding after reading this text from Saint Paul. All the love (of all types) moving within a marriage is supposed to bring us to Agape. The human family of mother and father and children – extended over generations – is a school of love, a community in which we become graced embodiments of Agape, the human manifestations of the Divine love. It is something we’re all supposed to strive to achieve and it is exactly the struggle to achieve Agape that is the working out of our Salvation. Agape is the more excellent way. Anything that does not lead to Agape is not the right answer.

We can, in some ways, think of sex as the goal, or the end of relationships. It is what comes after getting to third base. So we imagine marriage as “the Church’s permission to have sex”, to hit home runs nightly (or more). Some popular publications and even doctors seem obsessed with how many times we have sex: often used as a metric for how our healthy our relationship is. We end up looking at marriage as making an “unrighteous sexual union” into a “righteous sexual union.” This is especially true for couples who have lived together before getting married. We speak of having “made a righteous wo/man out of him/her” by finally getting married. The licitness or illicitness of sex is not the purpose of marriage.

Sexual activity is a tool, as I mentioned yesterday. The sexual act within a marriage is only a means to an end: it is not an end, in and of itself, nor is it the only means to the ends it achieves. The purpose of sex is twofold: the procreative function (having children) and the unitive function (growing closer or “grokking” as Heinlein put it). Yet both of those ends can be achieved by other means. For example, adoption can bring children into a marriage, and men and women also speak of “spiritual” parenting, of mentoring, etc as non-sexual ways of bringing children into the world. Surviving terrible hardship – such as war – together can make a closer union, as can struggling through various things like marital infidelity or addiction. Sex is not even the best way in all cases: illness, power plays, unhealthy attachments can cause sex to be the worst possible choice.

We confuse Eros with sex all the time. This is why we go looking for someone who “is hot” to use for sexual purposes. Sometimes we get married to this hot person. This is called a trophy wife. This is why our culture does not understand how men and women in earlier days who experienced same-sex attraction still got married: marriage in those earlier days was not about sex nor “hotness”. It wasn’t even about romance until very late in time. Marriage was about familial duty. Yet there was always Eros. Eros is the love that craves union. It’s a desire, but it’s much more than sex. On one level it’s always a movement towards a physical action, but it echoes through our whole person. Our hearts are crying out and, as St Augustine said, “our hearts are restless” until they rest in God. A husband and wife can only grow together as they grow closer to God. It’s not based on “hotness”, but on shared holiness. If we focus on “righteous sex” as the telos or end of a relationship then it is logical to ask why all people can’t have sex. If we can form bonded, loving relationships then it seems we should all have a right to the highest good. Yet if salvation is the highest good, the purpose of children and of sex, of relationships themselves then sexual situations where salvation is not possible are logically (and theologically) excluded from this consideration. Yet that does not limit eros, only sexual activity.

If we focus on the purpose or telos of sex then it becomes obvious why some people are not to have sex – at least within Christian morality. Procreation and union are a higher good than and the reason for sex. If Thing 1 is the reason for Thing 2, then Thing 1 is of higher or greater good than Thing 2. This goes further, however: the purpose of children and of communion in a marriage is the salvation of the man and the woman involved in the union. It is not enough to get married and to have children and even to be faithful forever if you do so selfishly, unsacrificially, and begrudgingly. Marriage is about kenosis (self-emptying). This is a gift of self that mirrors Christ’s self-gift to us on the Cross. The telos or proper end of sex is children/union which has its own telos in the salvation of the parties involved who cannot be saved alone. A man and wife and their children are all saved together – in fact even that draws the circle too small: for a man and wife is properly a symbol of the Church and Christ. Each familial chain of salvation-in-relationship is a part of the world’s salvation. They are on the Cross.

It may seem strange to compare marriage to the Cross. Go, ask any married couple. If they are honest, they will confirm that the wedding was the beginning of a martyrdom. This is why in the Byzantine Catholic & Eastern Orthodox marriage rite the couple is crowned (as the martyrs are) and one of the hymns sung at that time is the hymn for the martyrs. Marriage is the cross on which the married couple is to die for each other and for their children all in the name of love. This is not at all about sex. The sexual activity within a marriage may happen only a handful of times, yet the erotic content – the content of desire for deeper communion – within the marriage is on-going. Only if you think of sex as the highest good do you imagine that Marital Eros is about sex rather than martyrdom.

Erotic content is present in a marriage with or without sex, and in that context, for the salvation of all involved, sexual action becomes kenosis, a self-emptying. I sacrifice my eros for my beloved. Agape craves this sacrifice and self-gift: these are two sides of the same coin. My desire for union (Eros) leads me to self-sacrifice (Agape). We do this growing together in response (only) to God’s erotic love for us – craving union with us.

St Ignatius of Antioch, writing an Epistle to the Romans early in the 2nd Century, commented ὁ ἐμὸς ἔρως ἐσταύρωται My eros is crucified. Charles Williams the poet/mystic/writer (an Inkling and mentor of Lewis, Tolkien, and Sayers) has this to say on St Ignatius:

Ignatius of Antioch in the early second century, had tossed it out on his way to martyrdom: ‘My Eros is crucified.’ Learned men have disputed on the exact meaning of the word: can it refer, with its intensity of allusion to physical passion, to Christ? or does it rather refer to his own physical nature? We, who have too much separated our own physical nature from Christ’s, cannot easily read an identity into the two meanings. But they unite, and others spring from them. ‘My love is crucified’; ‘My Love is crucified’: ‘My love for my Love is crucified’; ‘My Love in my love is crucified.’ The physical and the spiritual are no longer divided: he who is Theos is Anthropos, and all the images of anthropos are in him. The Eros that is crucified lives again and the Eros lives after a new style: this was the discovery of the operation of faith. The Eros of five hundred years of Greece and Rome was to live after a new style; unexpected as yet, the great Romantic vision approached. ‘My’ Eros is crucified; incredible as yet, the great doctrines of interchange, of the City, approached. ‘Another is in me’; ‘your life and death are in your neighbour’; ‘they in Me and I in them.’

Charles Williams, The Descent of the Dove: A Short History of the Holy Spirit in the Church 

Then, following on Williams, consider what Pope Benedict XVI gives us as an image of God’s love for us – eros!

Dear brothers and sisters, let us look at Christ pierced on the Cross! He is the unsurpassing revelation of God’s love, a love in which eros and agape, far from being opposed, enlighten each other. On the Cross, it is God himself who begs the love of his creature: He is thirsty for the love of every one of us. The Apostle Thomas recognized Jesus as “Lord and God” when he put his hand into the wound of his side. Not surprisingly, many of the saints found in the Heart of Jesus the deepest expression of this mystery of love. One could rightly say that the revelation of God’s eros toward man is, in reality, the supreme expression of his agape. In all truth, only the love that unites the free gift of oneself with the impassioned desire for reciprocity instills a joy which eases the heaviest of burdens. Jesus said: “When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all men to myself” (Jn 12: 32). The response the Lord ardently desires of us is above all that we welcome his love and allow ourselves to be drawn to him.

Message of H.H. Pope Benedict XVI for Lent 2007

It is not enough that we allow ourselves to be desired by God and drawn into Union with him. For the closer we come to him the more like him we become. We desire to draw others into this Union as well. This, too, is erotic love. The Pope continues, Accepting his love, however, is not enough. We need to respond to such love and devote ourselves to communicating it to others. Christ “draws me to himself” in order to unite himself to me, so that I learn to love the brothers with his own love. I learn to love not with mere human eros but with the Divine Eros which is Agape.

Christian Eros, then, is not concerned with permission to have sex. All four of the loves – friendship, familial, erotic, and charitable – become ordered toward our salvation and the salvation of others. This their proper telos before the fall and to which they are restored in Christ. Christ is not the suppression of erotic love, but rather the liberation and salvation of it. Christ restores erotic love to its proper end among the other three loves. It is part of the constellation of love that God gives us to lead us home. It’s not the pagan “venereal religion” of the fallen world, but rather the proper telos of all of our body and soul (our entire person) in God’s service.

It is still possible to have sex without this proper erotic content and this proper end in mind. But, it should now be evident that such sex is not salvific and why it is not as well. Anything that cannot be brought to its proper telos is leading us away from salvation.

Yesterday and today are leading up to a discussion of celibacy and marriage. Yes, both are equally paths to salvation, but celibacy is a sign of the next world in which men and woman are “neither married nor given in marriage”. Celibacy is chosen for the kingdom. And a sign that all the things of this world – including sexual activity and marriage – all pass away but it is is our communion that will bring us to eternity.

See you tomorrow.

Day 149: Only A Tool

JMJ

WHEN I WAS FIRST CONSIDERING the priesthood in the Episcopal Church (as a teenager) the most common response was around marriage. “Can they get married?” “But you’re able to get married, right?” “Well at least that kind of priest can still get married.” It did not take long before I realized that what they were talking about was not marriage but sex. So my snarky, teenaged self begin to reply, “Yes. And I can have sex too.” This sort of dialogue continued as I identified and began to explore my same-sex attraction. At that time the Episcopal Church was publicly divided on this issue, but the reality in private was rather more progressive: the most conservative of Episcopal Bishops were mostly “gay friendly” even if they pretended otherwise in public, sometimes even signing documents. So when this topic came up I always replied, “No worries”.

Almost all of these conversations were with other Christians. These conversations all made an assumption about the importance of sex, And how important having sex is to the life of the Christian person. The life of the human person – created in the image and likeness of God – is the field in which Christian teaching is sown. The right end of this seed is the Salvation of the human person, but what that salvation might be is often up for debate. Salvation is often understood as meaning a sort of get out of hell free card, an easy passport to heaven. But in Greek, Hebrew, and Latin the word for salvation always means health and wholeness. Salvation – being saved – means becoming whole, becoming a whole person as God intended each of us to be.

In our world today, outside of the church, much of, if not the entirety of this whole person is often understood as engaging in sexual activity. If you’re not having sex somehow you are not a whole person. This secular understanding of sex has crept into the church as well. We see it in the discussion around marriage and celibacy as well as around how same-sex attracted men and women are perceived in the church. These conversations not only assume that sexuality is a Divine gift but that sexual activity is also a Divine gift. In fact, these conversations often assume that sexuality and sexual activity are the same thing.

We see this assumption about sexuality in the idea (expressed both by “conservatives” and “liberals”) that not all people are called by God to celibacy. Some people just “don’t have that gift”. Then we ask everyone to abstain from sex outside of marriage – even those who will never get married. This leads to a logical contradiction: if God has not given one this other, special gift of celibacy then why cannot one use the “regular gift” of sexuality (by which is meant engaging in sexual activity). With this mindset, the question is usually phrased as how can sexual activity be included in any current situation.


My own questions arise since I have lived my life alone, not within the grace of a sacramental marriage. To me this seems to be where the charism of celibacy should come in as a needed salve, but it does not. That’s not what a charism is. At the same time, celibacy is certainly a denial or a sacrifice of what our culture imagines to be the highest good. Even if you limit sex to a monogamous, life-long union you still “get” to have sex. What about my needs? Please note that the minute you start asking about my needs you’re not asking about love. I recognize that. Please continue in this conversation with me anyway.

I was having this conversation with a friend the other day who wondered why (according to the Church’s morality) some people were allowed to have sex and others were not. I struggled to find an answer that was applicable to anyone other than myself. You can’t appeal to authority here: “Because God says so” even though that is true. Sometime later, (after a lifetime of struggling) it comes to me that we are asking the wrong question. The clue came listening to a podcast called Clerically Speaking. In Episode 101 Golf, Virginity, Gossip, Fr Harrison never got around to saying this but it dawned on me listening: sexual activity is not the highest good of a relationship, it’s not even the best thing or the second best thing about a relationship. The four loves, Philia (friendship), Eros (sexual desire), Storge (familial), and Agape (divine charity) are the highest goods and they lead one to the other. Sexual activity is not any one of those. Sex most clearly assumes eros but that’s not the same thing as saying “sex is eros” or even “eros is sex”.

This conversation needs to be framed in another way in order to see not only God’s holiness but also our rightful place and our own restoration to wholeness as his image. If we ask the right questions with openness to Christian teaching, we hear answers that can help us grow on that path, embodying all four of the loves in godly ways.

For Christians this working out of our salvation – our wholeness – is rooted in our communion with God. Further, since no one is saved alone our salvation is also rooted in our communion with other people. Salvation is not an individual action or process but rather a communal action, and action of a progressive unity of heart and mind with God and with each other as humans which therefore also includes Jesus (who is God). This also works in the other direction, as it were: we work out our unity with Christ (a human person) and through him, we work out our communion with God the Father in the fullness of the Holy Spirit. You simply cannot get to this latter point if you begin with a question about permission to engage in sexual activity. Since this union with God and each other is our ultimate purpose as human beings everything must be framed this way: does this situation, action, relationship lead to my salvation, to my wholeness, to my communion with God and others? In that very different light sexual activity is rightly judged as only a tool or function which may or may not lead to a deeper working out of our salvation. It is not the pinnacle of anything: but rather just another step on the way up – or down.

(This is the first post of a three-parter. Come back tomorrow.)

Day 52. A Discomfiting Question: SSA, Pr0n, Theology of the Body

Back when feminism stood against porn.

JMJ

Back in the 80s there was this woman who was alway protesting in Midtown Manhattan, usually in the middle of the day when folks were about for their lunch. I did see her sometimes durning the morning rush hour. She was always around Grand Central Station, on the 42nd Street side, although sometimes as far up as 2nd Avenue near the Daily News building. Her message was simple: Porn is Violence against women. She had a sign or two that said this. And she had a petition. You could hear her yelling a block or so away, always the same two sentences:

PORN IS VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN and SIGN THE PETITION, WOMEN! (She didn’t want men’s signatures, I have one friend who tried.)

Nowadays “feminisim” tends to treat NSFW content as “liberation”. I wonder whatever happened to the woman who stood in her business suit inviting office workers to “Sign the petition”.

This is a continuation of the themes (but not a second part) to a post from back in February called Igotchu Babe. There are serious adult themes in this post, but I think it’s important. Proceed with that warning in mind. I ask your prayers for me. (Click the number 2 to keep going.)

Igotchu Babe.

Seven Deadly Sins, the Gifts of the Spirit, the Evangelical Counsels, Chastity, Catching Foxes, Celibacy and Bachelorhood, AKA, a blog post on sex and religion.

The Mother and Father of Chastity.

JMJ

Two months ago over lunch a friend and I talked about how many clergy we knew who were bachelors, but who were not celibate. These follow the rules but something seems off. Then, using those same words, a Dominican priest posted it on FB. It seems that often it is religious (those in communities, like Dominicans and Franciscans) who are celibates. Often it is diocesan clergy who are not living in community (some are!) who are “only” bachelors. Meditating on the difference between bachelor and celibate has had this topic in my head for seven or eight weeks. I have been wrestling with this topic (Chastity) for a while as there’s been a book in process for a year on same-sex attraction and chastity. (For news and updates about this project, support my writing on my Patreon page.) Of course, the content of that book and of this blog have hovered around the topic of sex and religion since before I even became Orthodox in 2002. In addition to the book, I have an essay to write on clerical celibacy in the Deaconate. And hanging around with Catholics all the time brings it up. What? You don’t talk about Chastity with your friends? Then, last night, Gomer and Luke blew my mind with their Episode on Chastity, the sort of Capstone on this whole topic. What follows is only the meditation on all that: I also had a long talk with Fr Isaiah this morning to help me clarify this.

From: Garrigou-Lagrange’s Les Trois Ages de la Vie Interieure.
Retrieved from Twitter.

There are seven deadly sins. Most Catholics and some others are familiar with the list: Pride, Lust, Envy, Anger, Acedia, Gluttony, and Avarice. It’s ok to see these sins as a breaking of the rules because they are, but look at the image above. The tree makes it clear that they are all tied together with a whole series of vices, not just sins, per se, but a whole collection of bad habits. Mortal sins, venial sins, practices, bad thoughts, pitfalls we can make. It’s more than breaking the rules. In fact, the spiritual powers that seek to win our souls don’t need you to climb up the tree and eat its seven deadly fruit: it’s enough for you to rest against the trunk of the tree and sleep in the shade.

After the Seven Deadly Sins, what? The same author has given us a Tree of Virtues which I’ve added below, but that does not grow in the same orchard, if you will, as the Tree of Vice. There’s a journey from one to the other. What is this? While there are lists of “seven” virtues floating around, these are not generally given a one-to-one pairing with the vices. That’s because they are thought of differently. The four Cardinal Virtues of Prudence, Justice, Temperance, and Fortitude are shared with all the world. These are the primary state of the human soul, if you will. They are common to all humanity as our tools for fighting against vice. Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle brought them into focus for the pagans as the Jewish Prophets brought them into focus for us. Christians inherit them from both sides of our family tree.

To the four cardinal virtues, which may be pictured around us like the four points of the compass, Christians add three Theological Virtues for a total of seven, aligning with the traditional seven directions of ancient cosmology: Hope beneath us, Faith above us, and at the center, Charity, from which all the other arise in their proper ordering for human prosperity.

Notice please that Chastity is not on this list. Why not? Would not you put Chastity opposite Lust? Bishop Barron does and it makes perfect sense if all of this is about rules: Chastity is obeying all the rules of the Church and lust is the temptation to break them, right? What if that is wrong? Gomer and Luke in the podcast above tap dance around this: it’s not about rules, it’s not about rules, it’s not about rules. We beat kids up about “following the rules” but that’s not the real issue. What is it, if it’s not rules? Certainly, there are rules. Clearly we cannot break them. But: it’s not about the keeping of them. We are not made whole by keeping rules.

The virtues as seven points on a sphere (including the center) are the key: properly ordered life, arising from Charity, built on Hope, striving in Faith, and protected by Prudence, Justice, Temperance, and Fortitude. We move through the world with this spherical map as our guide. The virtues are acquired though, like an ancient warrior on a vision quest, we must seek to blend each of these into our lives. A virtue is a habit of doing good. We know habits! I don’t mean the way you have to touch your hair when you get nervous. I mean the way you put on shoes without thinking or the exact muscle memory that lets you walk forward, raise a hand, grab a doorknob, turn the knob with your hand and push while still walking through the door, open the door, and close (slightly turned) the door behind you while still walking forward. You learned all of that as a child. You don’t think about it normally. It’s not even a process: it just happens. That’s the virtue of opening the door, if you will. The seven virtues must be acquired to the same degree of expertise, the same unthinking level of habit.

But how? We still don’t have chastity listed here.

The Christian has the Holy Spirit for the acquisition of Virtues. The Holy Spirit is God dwelling in us as the Body of Christ. We get the Holy Spirit at Baptism and from this arise (in differing degrees for each of us) the Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit:

  • Wisdom
  • Understanding
  • Counsel
  • Fortitude
  • Knowledge
  • Piety
  • Fear of the Lord

Yes: right there, Fortitude shows up. It’s a gift and a virtue. Courage (aka the virtue of Fortitude) is the power to run into the fire and rescue people. It’s why we honor the First Responders from 9/11. The Holy Spirit brings those same cojones to your religious faith. These are not rules, nor are they indicative of keeping rules. Rather they are about relationship – our relationship with God.

From the fear of the Lord and piety arise all the others: for God imparts them to us as we need. Christians say all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose (Romans 8:28). These come to us as whispers and dreams, as words spoken by our friends, from wise priests laughing in the confessional, and from random posters on the street. These gifts of the Spirit are sealed in us in the Sacrament of Confirmation.

From these arise the nine Fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Love (one of the virtues) is a fruit of the Spirit. These, you’ll notice, are about our Relationships with Others. Even that last one – Self-Control – which is the most important, is about how we relate to others. These fruit are how the Gifts of the Spirit and the process of the acquisition of virtues work together in and through us in the Church.

Here is where we sin mostly – if we are honest. Our relationships with each other fail to be holy, healthy, and honorable at all times because we lose track of these fruit of the spirit.

We continue to move through this process, but we’re not “there” yet in that there’s no Chastity. What the heck?

From: Garrigou-Lagrange’s Les Trois Ages de la Vie Interieure.
Retrieved from Twitter.

All men and women in religious orders make three vows: Poverty, Chastity, and Obedience. These are called the Three Evangelical Counsels. Different religious orders understand these differently – according to their own ministries and gifts – but the reason they are common to all religious orders is that they are the common marks of all Christian life, lay, ordained, and vowed religious. All Christians are called to poverty, chastity, and obedience each according to their state in life. Here, suddenly – outside of the vices, virtues, gifts, and fruits, we hit the real thing: the Christian life!

Christain life is about virtues, certainly, and there are rules, yes, but Christian life is primarily (if not only) about manifesting in the world salvation as witnessed by a personal relationship with God in the body of his Son, the Church. See how those Christians love one another? I’m afraid most folks don’t right now. Our lives do not shine like a light on a lampstand, like a city on a hilltop. We hold aloft our rules – even try to make laws to enforce our rules on others – while having none of the virtues. And we forget that laws do not make us virtuous: rather they protect our virtue.

It helps me to know God has a rule about “do not commit adultery”, but I can go through my whole life and never commit adultery without ever reaching God. And yet, if I search for God honestly, faithfully, deeply and truly, I will discover that I should avoid adultery in my love for the God I seek – even if I never find him. The rule does not bring me to him and, ironically, if I get stuck on the rule, get judgy about it, yell and scream to protect the rule it can actually keep me from God.

How we move through the world (on our seven points of the compass) guided by the Spirit’s gifts, manifesting the Spirit’s fruit, creates the presence of the Evangelical Counsels to the world in all their aspects. These are our Good Deeds which will shine before men and they will praise our Father in Heaven.

Now, to the earlier point: Bachelors and Celibates. Celibacy is a Charism, a gift given to the Church for the sharing of her ministry in the world. The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us that

There are furthermore special graces, also called charisms after the Greek term used by St. Paul and meaning “favor,” “gratuitous gift,” “benefit.”53 Whatever their character – sometimes it is extraordinary, such as the gift of miracles or of tongues – charisms are oriented toward sanctifying grace and are intended for the common good of the Church. They are at the service of charity which builds up the Church.

Para 2003


We go from seven to nine to three to more than twenty! 23 of the identified supernatural Christian Charisms are: Administration, Celibacy, Craftsmanship, Discernment of Spirits, Encouragement, Evangelism, Faith, Giving, Healing, Helps, Hospitality, Intercessory Prayer, Knowledge, Leadership, Mercy, Missionary, Music, Pastoring, Prophecy, Service, Teaching, Voluntary Poverty, Wisdom, Writing. Celibacy is one of these. The relationship of Charisms to the rest of Christian life is not hierarchical, they are not better one than the other. (This list is alphabetical.) Nor is it lateral: there’s not a line from Love to Chastity and then to Celibacy. They are gifts for the whole church, given to the whole church. They are manifest how and when the Spirit decides. They are relational, of course, in that they deal with the whole body of Christ. But they are not the result of any action or virtue on our part. They are given to us and, in fact, if we ignore them they can trip us up.

Why, I asked the priest, if you say I have the Charism of Celibacy, have I spent so much of my life having sex? The response was that where there is the greatest gift there also can be the greatest fall. These gifts can also be taken away if they are needed for another reason, or if they are misused. But they – also – are not about rules. Having the Charism of Celibacy does not mean you follow all the rules, but you can rely on that Charism – once discovered – to lead you into the acquisition of the virtues, to lead you to manifest chastity as appropriate to your state in life. Again, the follow the rules, yet I think bachelors are only failing to lean in.

I’ll end here… I’m feeling like I’ve said enough right now. In sum:

There are vices that lead to deadly sins but the demons don’t need deadly sins every day to keep us going to hell. They only need to keep us from walking in another direction, using our moral compass of the four cardinal virtues plus the three theological ones. It’s not rules but relationships. The Holy Spirit gives us gifts for relationship to God and in our lives – relating to each other – manifests fruits. In the relational body of the Church, we live and move. God may confer Charisms or not, yet all of us manifest (as the Church) the evangelical counsels of Poverty, Chastity, and Obedience that the world may come to the light of Christ and be saved.

Amen?

And raise you up.

JMJ

Sitting outside the coffee shop about a week ago, I was approached by a man who asked if he could join me and sit at my table. It’s a small coffee shop: there are three tables and strangers always sit together. I said sure. He sat down and immediately begin to talk. This was annoying, slightly, because I had my computer open and I was in fact working. Actually, as I was only looking for a particular font on graphic design, I wasn’t completely engrossed. Then at one point, he said, “Sorry! Do you have time for a conversation?” I explained that I was only looking for a particular font and if he would give me a moment I would be with him. A few moments later I closed my computer and we begin to chat.

He was working in a substance addiction program. This is work experience that I have as well. He was studying substance addiction at college. This is something I really wish I had done, but his next comment was even more engrossing: what I’m really interested in, he said, is internet addiction. And I acknowledge that I worked for a tech company, but that I also had worked in recovery and was interested in internet addiction. I excused myself and got a refill on my coffee. When I returned to the table the woman next to us joined our conversation, “I too work in recovery.” This is the sort of thing that happens all the time in San Francisco. I love this town!

My conversation partner acknowledged that as it was already nearly noon and that he had just gotten out of the house: he had been up late watching YouTube videos. He’s one of several folks who admitted to me that they stay up at night watching YouTube, clip after clip. I said I once had sort of the same problem, but my internet now turned off at 10 PM. He asked me to walk him through this – first wanting to know how to do it for himself and then wanting to know the thought process that led me to this choice.

Probing, personal conversations with total strangers is also something that happens in SF. At this point, we exchanged (first) names.

My own story does not begin with an addiction to adult content. Immediately after 9/11 I found that I was almost obsessively saving news photos of the tragedy. Photos of people waiting in airports. Photos of people running away from The Towers. Photos of people jumping. I have thousands of images of that day. Why? Was merely hunting and gathering what was this about? It was three years or more before I could bring myself to throw those photos away. I never printed them. I’m not sure that I ever went back and looked at them. But I had them. It was my way of processing grief, I think. When I later begin to collect adult content though, I recognized the same pattern. And I recognize the same pattern in other places around the internet. This didn’t strike me as a healthy process. Even now, late at night I will find myself switching between Facebook Twitter and my email as if something new could have happened. This is why things turn off at 10 pm.

He shared that in his research he had discovered that Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and other social media platforms use the same algorithm as a prominent adult content company. I asked him for more information. He said that this adult content company (aka TornNub) used a certain algorithm to decide when to display content you seen and liked versus content that was only sort of what you liked versus content you wouldn’t like it all. The idea was to get you to click more. It didn’t matter what you clicked on – only that you clicked. So when you find yourself in an endless scroll on Facebook, or Twitter looking for something to like but not really caring about anything you see you’re doing the exact same thing that TornNub gets you to do. Amazon also uses this same stochastic rewards system to get you to keep scrolling through their endless shopping lists. They sell adult content there, too: only you are not on trhe right track to find it. One day I found myself looking wood floor tiling: I have never owned my own living space. Amazon fed me floor tile that is removable, and useful for apartments. I clicked through just as easily Baby Yoda did when his parents left the house.

An old commercial used to say it’s 10 p.m. Do You Know Where Your Children Are? If they’re on the internet they could be home. But their brains could be anywhere at all including, most likely shut down, zombified as they scroll. He shared that his exploration of the stochastic process had caused him to discover it on Netflix and other content sites as well. Anywhere a service says, you might also like… All of these sites use TornNub’s same process to keep you clicking, to get you addicted to their content.

To struggle with an addiction is often disheartening: knowing that failure only means more struggle, more work. Yet, one can forget that one is sick: morality plays a part in early choices that lead to addiction, but culpability fades as the actual mental illness grows and develops, become stronger. I have been taking my addiction to confession for literally two decades. Sometimes it was worse sometimes it was better but always it was constant. A couple of months ago having heard my confession my spiritual director asked me if I wanted anointing.

When the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick is given, the hoped-for effect is that, if it be God’s will, the person be physically healed of illness. But even if there is no physical healing, the primary effect of the Sacramento is a spiritual healing by which the sick person receives theHoly Spirit’s gift of peace and courage to deal with the difficulties that accompany serious illness or the frailty of old age. The Holy Spirit renews our faith in God and helps us withstand the temptations of the Evil One to be discouraged and despairing in the face of suffering and death. Also, a sick person’s sins are forgiven if he or she was not able to go to Confession prior to the celebration of the Sacrament of the anointing of the Sick.

Another effect of this Sacrament is union with the Passion of Christ. By uniting ourselves more closely with the sufferings of Our Lord, we receive the grace of sharing in the saving work of Christ. In this way, our suffering, joined to the Cross of Christ, contributes to building up the people of God.

US Conference of Catholic Bishops, Catechism for Adults, pg 282

I said yes to his invite and receive the sacrament, for the first time, that day in the office. In the Orthodox church although the sacrament of anointing is offered it really is only offered for the terribly sick. I’d only seen it twice: once for my priest when he had cancer and once for a child who had a tumor. In some places, this sacrament is offered to everyone on the first Wednesday of Lent. In the Catholic church, it’s part of what used to be called the Last Rites. All images of it from history show old, sick people in bed, their priests holding oil while loved ones are around praying and weeping. At st. Dominic’s you can receive the sacrament anytime you wish if you ask for it. And monthly there is a mass of healing where all the sick come forward and are anointed. I have since received this Sacrament at this Mass: once a month going forward with all the sick and the infirm, to receive the holy oil on my hands and my forehead. As a priest said this last weekend, no one will “check your sick card” if you present yourself for this. No one asks why I’m there. And so this Saturday I presented myself for inviting.

The priest lays his hand upon your head and silently, or perhaps verbally, says a prayer for you. Then, signing your forehead and each hand with the holy oil (blessed by the Bishop), the priest says, “Through this holy anointing may the Lord in his love and mercy help you with the grace of the Holy Spirit. May the Lord who frees you from sin save you and raise you up.”

This is literally Jesus touching you.

It is impossible to describe how the sacrament feels. In fact, it is impossible to describe how any Sacrament feels. St Thomas says the sacraments cause Grace. But at the same time, they are something so deep, so intimate, so dark, so cthonic, and so personal that it is impossible to give them words. A Sacrament is what God whispers to you on Sunday morning in dawn’s light, as you both lie in bed looking deeply into each other’s eyes across the pillow. There are no words for that.

The monthly “booster shot” seems to work where no other action has. A priest in confession once told me that all of our sins can cause deep wounds and in those wounds demons hide in the darkness. This priest gave me a blessing, an exorcism of sorts, to set about cleansing these wounds. We go to confession for the restoration of our relationship with God so that the healing can begin. The Anointing of the Sick is for the healing of these wounds. Healing is what is needed, the next step in the process. The Saints call us not towards a life devoid of health, but to a life filled with the goodness of the Holy Spirit raising us up. This sacrament is that process.

In light of what my new friend shared about the way that internet media draws Us in and keeps us, it seems we may all be suffering from an addiction of sorts. It’s not adult content, but an addiction doesn’t have to be morally objectionable to destroy our freedom and wreck our lives: only addicting.

Metanoia & Warfare

JMJ

We are each gifted with a personal identity in the image of God our Father. We are an icon of God.

We are marred by our human tendency to sin, our concupiscence.

We are each born with weaknesses and even as we grow up we may be marked with wounds and scars that further those weaknesses.

At the same time these wounds and scars make us stronger, prepare us for life with others, and help us grow in God’s image. In our weakness God’s grace can supply our needs.

These needs, also determine our susceptibility to temptations, those directions in which we can more easily fall.

All of these are human processes; we are fallen, but nothing prior to this can be called our fault or our choice. This is all the environment, and our pre-mature interactions.

We become what we learn, though.

Those weaknesses become the ways in which we might self-medicate, self-soothe, hide from things we don’t like, and defend ourselves from both abusive interactions and also troublesome but necessary ones.

At this point we start to make choices: do I lash out when I get threatened? Do I retreat into isolation and find ways to imagine revenge? Do I create an interesting cover story to make up for an absence? Do I obscure my intentions for my actions?

At this point, also, temptations begin: yes, you should lash out. Yes, you should break off interactions. Yes, you should tell that lie. Yes, you can do that… it’s easy. These ideas do not come from within you but from outside.

It is here the sword and shield of spiritual warfare must become involved.

The scars and wounds which allow one to be more susceptible to one kind of temptation than another are not our fault. The temptation itself is likewise not our fault. But the choice to act on it at all is a fault.

A demonic voice can only lie, telling you what is a wound is no wound, telling you what is a lie is actually “your truth”. The voice can obscure reality but cannot trigger action: this last step is yours.

We need spiritual warfare at every point here

Some sins lead us only away from God. Some sins draw us deeper into themselves. They become repeating patterns of their own. The demonic no longer needs to trigger these steps for you trigger them yourself. You no longer need to make choices, for the choice was made long ago and you are only continuing to follow it.

The deeper and more and meshed in the lie you become, the more it becomes your reality. You begin to think this is you, this unmade, continually repeating choice. Eventually you invest so much in this artificial reality that your own self gets lost.

You are alone. People no longer relate to you but rather relate to this lie, this artificial reality. You’re not relating to them anymore for they too are covered in artificial realities. The lie has isolated you.

When you come before God, if you do at all, you are convinced that even then you are this lie. Until you are not relating to him he struggles to relate to you. He loves you.

If it were possible you would cease to be you. Your identity as an icon of the Living God would be entirely lost. But that’s not possible. You’re still there. You may be covered by layers of repeated actions. You may be distorted by layers of lacquer and paint. These were not on the original icon and they’re not part of you. Removing them will feel painful.

Yet removing them is exactly what needs to be done. You cannot do this. You must submit to God to have this done. Only the original painter can restore his work.

The voices will tell you this really is you. The idea of pain will run through your head at every moment. Fear will make you stop. You must hear your inner heartbeat. You must see the glow that comes from the original image shining from beneath the lacquer. These things are not you.

You know this. You have always known this. The reality is being yourself is much more work than being this lie. You want to be yourself, but it’s a lot of work. This is where spiritual warfare is necessary.

At every turn cry out to your father. At every turn cry out to the Son and the Holy Spirit. At every turn cry out to our lady and all the Saints. At every turn cry out to Saint Michael the Archangel to defend you in battle. At every turn laugh at Satan. At every turn strive for Holiness. At every turn it is you resting in God never alone, never again.

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.