Almah Parthenos

JMJ

IN ISAIAH 7:14 the Spirit of the Lord speaking through the Prophet says, “Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.” (AV) and people bicker a lot about the word “virgin” there: the Hebrew – according to the Masoretic text is עַלְמָ֗ה almah which means only a young girl. The Greek, however, is παρθένος parthenos which means rather a lot more than just young girl. In fact parthenos means so much more than almah that there is a story about this word choice:

In the middle of the 3rd Century Before the Christian Era, Ptolemy II asked for a Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, tradition says the project was given to 70 wise elders who, in prayer and meditation, sought to render a translation that could be seen as spirit-breathed and trustworthy. This translation is called the Septuagint, often noted as the LXX for the 70 translators. As one elder was translating Isaiah, he tried to render the word almah as νεᾶνις neanis meaning only a young girl (as in other passages in the scriptures), but the Holy Spirit told him to write parthenos. The man objected but God insisted – and promised him he was to see the fulfillment of this prophecy with his own eyes. This man, the legend says, was Simeon who was blessed to hold in his own hands the Messiah as a baby. Your host digresses, but only a little bit: the story makes it clear even earlier Christians saw there was a crucial difference between almah and parthenos.

As this scripture comes into Latin, Roman culture, it gets rendered virgo which actually means less than the Greek and the Hebrew. By way of exploring these differences, there may also be something to learn about current issues in the Church and something about ourselves in relation to God and each other.

Before we go any further though let the reader understand clearly: none of this is to be read as commentary on the perpetual virginity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Your host believes, together with Holy Church, that the Mother of God was alma, parthenos, and virgo before and after giving birth to the Second Person of the Trinity. The best description of the All-Holy Theotokos uses all three of these words in their fullest cultural meanings. It’s the cultural meanings that are the focus. To reiterate, we are exploring these words in order to have a better context for discussing current issues in the Church.

The Latin word, virgo, can mean a young woman or girl, but it specifically refers to not-having sex and, even more specifically, to the membrane called the hymen. If this is intact, the woman is a virgo. There is a word for “young girl” in Latin puella, but culturally it’s missing the context of virgo. As I noted, the Latin word actually means much less than either alma or parthenos. It’s this word that comes into English as “Virgin” and so, too, it means much less for us. When we discuss sexual issues in the Church we often get hung up on virgo.

Alma is used a few times in the Hebrew scriptures. In almost all cases it can mean only a young girl without implying anything about their personal history. Culturally such a young woman may not yet have been married but at a time when they were given in marriage rather young (by our eyes) it is more a chronological term dealing with age. Even in the important passage in Isaiah, the woman in question is only being used as sort of a time-keeper. The Prophet is saying that she will have a child and before the child grows up all the predictions will come to pass (meaning they are not far in the future). The woman will still be a young woman at that time, actually, still a neanis, a youth. Perhaps, though, she has stopped being parthenos. We are not told. She may be virgo. We are not told.

The important word is παρθένος parthenos. At the time of the Ptolemy II parthenos was an honorific applied to several Greek goddesses: Artemis and Hera, although Athena is the best known example. Her temple in Athens included a statue called Athena Parthenos and this statue was also copied in several places. Parthenos is the adjective. The noun becomes the name of the Temple: the Parthenon. Please note that all three of these goddesses had extant stories of their sexual activities. They would not be virgins as we, today, understand that word in either a secular or religious context. The goddeses are not virgo. Parthenos carries a different cultural meaning.

Other persons in the Septuagint are called parthenos: one example is Rebecca, the woman who was to become the wife of Issac and the mother of Israel (Jacob). While it is outside of the scope of the present essay, fruitful meditation could arise on the connection of the Biblical title parthenos to the Mother of Israel and the Mother of God. The title itself is also applied to certain classes of people through the Old and New Testaments. It’s usually rendered as virgin(s) in English and Latin, implying no-sex but, again, culturally I think it means rather a bit more, even in the 1st Century of the Christian Era. Its meaning in the 1st century becomes our meaning today but we have forgotten it.

When you look up παρθένος parthenos in Strong’s Greek (the standard Greek reference for Biblical Scholars, augmented on the net by several other resources) we are come to word number 3933.
Usage: a maiden, virgin; extended to men who have not known women.
properly, a virgin; a woman who has never had sexual relations; a female (virgin), beyond puberty but not yet married; (figuratively) believers when they are pure (chaste), i.e. faithful to Christ their heavenly Bridegroom (2 Cor 11:2; Rev 14:4).
Word Origin: of uncertain origin.
Yet, as I’ve already noted, the several Goddesses to whom this title was originally applied were not “women who have never had sexual relations” and two, at least, were married.

Digging into the word further we need to go back to the temple mentioned earlier, the Parthenon. Whence that title for the Temple? We need to go to Liddell & Scott which is a rather more secular source for words outside of the Bible. Here we find the root word, παρθέν parthen which means “maidens’ apartments in a house” and was used of the apartments for the priestesses in the western end of the temple. So that is kind of like saying “a rector lives in a rectory”. Which came first, the house or the occupant? In the case of the clergyman, the office of rector was first, of course. But digging deeper into parthenos it seems the word was used for both men and women, always implying unmarried, but not always implying sexlessness, and not always implying virgo. What it does carry is implication of a sexuality being set apart and, in the case of women in Ancient Greece, this is important. They are set apart for a divine purpose – not for their father’s use in the way of the time. This is why Athena gets called parthenos – and the other goddeses: even though they are not virgo they struggle against all the male deities that want to own or control their sexual identities. They are enclosed in their own apartments, as it were. Having set their sexual selves aside for divine purposes, assuming they continue in that, they stay parthenos even after no longer being virgo, and even into old age. By the time it gets used in the LXX parthenos is culturally tied to those apartments in the greek Temple and to the patroness of Athens. Just as now we do not use “rector” without the Christian echos so, too, the LXX used parthenos. And this is where the meaning for the Mother of God and the Mother of Israel becomes important: regardless of their status as virgo, their sexuality, their sexual being, there sexual identity was consecrated; that is, set apart and dedicated to God’s purposes.

This is where this word, parthenos, should be important for the Church.

There are earlier essays in this blog on the difference between being a bachelor and being celibate. Essentially the difference is between a job and a vocation: the former is what one does, the latter is what one is. Celibate, here, means parthenos: having one’s sexual identity so consecrated to God by self-choice, self-gift (to God, that is) that any use outside of God’s plan is inconcievable, pardon the pun. It’s a placing of this part (whole) of one’s life at God’s disposition and trusting in him to maintain his plans and purposes.

It is possible to see clerical life in the teachings of the Church as sort of perpetual bachelorhood. One can be a virtuous bachelor, like Charles in Brideshead Revisited, or one can be unvirtuous. In 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. By way of examples, this can happen because they feel they are too old, or because they don’t want to take risks reaching out, or because they fear rejection. Whatever the reason they simply stop having sex and then (because of sloth, fear, or habit) they just don’t anymore. Father Benedict finds this to be of concern: he recognizes that they’re following the rules, they may even have chosen to follow the rules after a time, but in the end, they’re only not-having sex. They are not celibate. They have not give all to God at this moment. St Jane Frances de Chantal notes, “Give God your unconditional consent and… What happens is that love seeks out the most intimate and secret place of your soul, as with a sharp sword, and cuts you off even from your own self.” (From: The memoirs of the secretary of St Jane Frances de Chantal, used in the Office of Readings for her Memorial.)

In this light we can see that sometimes, even something that is not sex-having could be a sin against this status as parthenos if it means placing one’s sexual identity (or even seeming to place one’s sexual identity) before others as an offering, thus recanting, at least for a moment, on one’s vows. We refrain from being cut off even from our own self. There are many reasons one might do this: feeling lonely, of course, or feeling awkward. One knows that one can’t have sex, but I can at least pretend I might, you know. That way I can enjoy this conversation, or initiate this flirty moment on the street, or even install a hookup app on my phone: I do not intend to use it of course, but you know… just to look. And just to look as if I might use it if I wanted to. Even while still not-having sex, this participation in the glamour of sin (even while not going all the way) is not parthenos. And, in the throes of passion, it’s possible this is setting us up for a fall that’s even worse.

It’s important to see that this is not only an issue for clergy who up hookup apps on their phone, however. Since the Mother of God is called to parthenos so are we all called to this: we give our entire self over to God, we consecrate our entire self to him. This means that even our sexual identity is his as well. We are cut off even from our ideas of “who we are” and “what we feel” in that all of it is given to God, holding nothing back. In marriage this means refraining from lust and that the gift of self is given to God through giving to our spouse and, in this way, to our children. In all other states of life, we are called to refrain from lust and offer the Gift of Self as God has commanded us in the moment. We live in a way set apart from the world, in a way that marks us as God’s own. Like those in Athens, we have our dwelling place in the courts of the house of Our God, the True and Living God.

Accompanying

JMJ

WHEN I ENTERED the Church in 2002 my Spiritual Father, Victor Sokolov (may his memory be eternal!) heard my life confession which included my sexual past. He didn’t ask questions as I read off several pages of text I had written up for this. I followed a preparation for confession that I found online, drawn up by St Cosmas Aitolos, a Greek Monk who died in 1779. I remember it mostly because it asks (among all the other questions), “Did I smoke too much?” It seemed funny to me, an ex-smoker, that there must be smoking not-too-much. It’s that question, though, that we’ll keep coming back to. Did I smoke too much? I had been a pack-a-day smoker in college. Although by this time I was pretty much done, sorta, with smoking. When the Confession was over, Father pointed to the pages and said, “Now, burn those and forget that ever happened.” Would that it was that easy for smoking or any of the other sins on the list.

A Spiritual Father (in the Eastern Church) is rather like a Spiritual Director in the west: someone who shines a light on the way, who taps you on the shoulder and calmly suggests another way to proceed. There are some who seem to think they must require “obedience” of their spiritual children, but that’s an unhealthy bond. Fr V told me one “I’m no starets. If you want one of those, go to a monastery.” Starets means “Elder”. What he was, though, was a Father to me who (like all good fathers) was able to let one make mistakes in order to learn how not to make them any more.

My experience over the last 20 years (thank God for his patience) has been that a couple of sins have come back over and over. Smoking is one – although that’s more of a class of sins: damaging the temple of the body that God gave me: bad stewardship of a generous gift. I’ve gone from over-indulgence to judgmentalism and scrupulosity on this, back and forth across a spectrum until I have reached a place where my conscience is at peace both with those who smoke and with the occasional pipe or cigar on my own part: all God’s gifts are good, when used as they should be. Addiction is not using a gift as it should be used. It’s letting passion take over. We cannot heal that, cannot return the gift to its rightful place until we let reason take over our passions and let the virtue of temperance be inculcated in our heart by the Holy Spirit.

The close reader will notice that I used language from the Catechism there. All of our falls from grace function the same way: a good gift from God is used in ways that it should not be, doing so inflames our passions, and quickly the misuse of the gift becomes an addiction. The Catechism uses this language, speaking of Temperance, in ¶2341 while discussing Chastity.

¶2339 Chastity includes an apprenticeship in self-mastery which is a training in human freedom. the alternative is clear: either man governs his passions and finds peace, or he lets himself be dominated by them and becomes unhappy.” Man’s dignity therefore requires him to act out of conscious and free choice, as moved and drawn in a personal way from within, and not by blind impulses in himself or by mere external constraint. Man gains such dignity when, ridding himself of all slavery to the passions, he presses forward to his goal by freely choosing what is good and, by his diligence and skill, effectively secures for himself the means suited to this end.”

¶2340 Whoever wants to remain faithful to his baptismal promises and resist temptations will want to adopt the means for doing so: self-knowledge, practice of an ascesis adapted to the situations that confront him, obedience to God’s commandments, exercise of the moral virtues, and fidelity to prayer. “Indeed it is through chastity that we are gathered together and led back to the unity from which we were fragmented into multiplicity.”

¶2341 The virtue of chastity comes under the cardinal virtue of temperance, which seeks to permeate the passions and appetites of the senses with reason.

¶2342 Self-mastery is a long and exacting work. One can never consider it acquired once and for all. It presupposes renewed effort at all stages of life. The effort required can be more intense in certain periods, such as when the personality is being formed during childhood and adolescence.

¶2343 Chastity has laws of growth which progress through stages marked by imperfection and too often by sin. “Man . . . day by day builds himself up through his many free decisions; and so he knows, loves, and accomplishes moral good by stages of growth.”

¶2344 Chastity represents an eminently personal task; it also involves a cultural effort, for there is “an interdependence between personal betterment and the improvement of society.” Chastity presupposes respect for the rights of the person, in particular the right to receive information and an education that respect the moral and spiritual dimensions of human life.

¶2345 Chastity is a moral virtue. It is also a gift from God, a grace, a fruit of spiritual effort. The Holy Spirit enables one whom the water of Baptism has regenerated to imitate the purity of Christ.

Rather than rules, the discussion is one of growth, of acquisition of virtue, and of respect for the process working out in the person’s life.

Such sins are another that haunt me. Within a year of confessing to Fr Victor I was living with a partner and had come to terms with the mental and theological gymnastics it took to make that happen. Then I said to Fr Victor I had to leave SF: because this part of my past kept calling me back. Notice please that I didn’t feel a need to do anything except to move away to fix the issue. For a very long time (several years) I was pretty safe in the Mountain Fastness I had selected (Asheville, NC) but the Internet was also getting more and more social. Eventually, I “met” someone online and the whole game was once again afoot.

The life of Saint Mary of Egypt (d. AD 522) is read as part of Matins in the Byzantine and Orthodox churches on Thursday of the 5th week of Lent. Her life was written down by St Sophronius, Patriarch of Jerusalem (634–638), from older stories passed down in his monastic community. The original reporter was the monastic elder, St Zosimas, who heard the story from the Saint’s own lips. What follows is not the liturgical text – available online in many places. This is my own retelling. It’s ingrained in my heart.

Saint Mary was born sometime in the early to mid 5th century. We know nothing of her family or background. I imagine that she was poor because she is not averse to manual labor. She busied herself with spinning flax, basket weaving, and other such jobs. She says at the age of 12 she discovered sex: Mary went off to the big city of Alexandria and began to enjoy herself. At this time and culture marriage often took place at the same age, and in those days life expectancy was not then what it is now. Mary is not a child here. She is a girl in her sexual prime doing what youth often do.

In telling the story, Mary was at pains to say she was not a prostitute. She did not want to sell what she enjoyed as she did not think it was fair to be paid for it. She lived this life for 17 years in Alexandria. “This was life to me,” she says. “Every kind of abuse of nature I regarded as life.”

One day Mary saw a group of young men getting ready to get on a boat. In response to her questions about where they were going and why, the men explained that they were going to Jerusalem for the Feast of the Elevation of the Holy Cross, which happens in mid September. Mary asked to go with them not for any pious pursuit, implying rather that it seemed like a fun idea to be the only woman on a boat filled with young men. On the boat ride and during their time in the city of Jerusalem leading up to the feast day, there was nothing she didn’t do. She says that sometimes she even had sex with the young men when they were not willing to do so.

Then came the feast. With all of her new friends-with-benefits, she went to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. No matter how many times she tried to get in, she was prevented from entering the church. It was not that the crowds prevented her: she would shove along with everybody else. Yet each time approaching the door she found force holding her back and pushing her off to the side until finally she was alone on the porch of the church, looking at the open door, unable to enter.

Then she turned and saw an icon of Mary the Mother of God. She realized she was not alone and grace cause it to dawn on her why she could not enter. So she prayed and asked the Blessed Virgin to help her enter the church. If she could but enter the church and venerate the Holy Cross, she prayed, she would make amends and change her life, embarking on the path of repentance for the rest of her days. Then, in her greatest Act of Faith, she turned and walked into the church – and she was not held back. She knelt and kissed the holy wood whereupon hung the price of all of our lives and souls and, most dearly, hers.

As she left the church, someone thought she was a beggar and gave her coins, which she used to buy a small amount of food. Then, hearing a voice promise her comfort, she went to the Jordan River and crossed it into the desert, which for the next 17 years became the arena of the Angelic Conquest of her passions.

Mary reports that emotions would sometimes stir her; sometimes lust would catch hold of her, sometimes her cravings for food would drive her wild, and sometimes she would find herself singing songs that she used to sing about sex and vulgarity. At these times she would throw herself on the ground and beg for God’s mercy where she would wrestle with the demons that tormented her. There she would beg to be freed from her passion. After her long battle, one day there came from God an inner peace.

She had lived alone for another 40 or so years when she met Fr Zosima, a priest from a monastery on the Jerusalem side of the Jordan River. He was wandering through the Jordan desert on his Lenten fast.

The priest reported that when he begged her to pray for the Church and she hovered above the sandy floor of the wasteland while praying. She was illiterate and had never been taught scripture yet she could quote it fluently. From her inner sight, she knew Fr Zosima’s name and that he was a priest. She had won her struggle, receiving so much grace from God that she lived in this world partly as the Angels do in the next. She had grown – over decades – into Self Mastery.

She asked the priest to meet her after Easter with the Holy Eucharist. As he came to her from his monastery, he saw her walk across the Jordan to receive the Eucharist from him and then walk back across the water.

A year later, when he went to find her, he found her body lying on the sand. Unable to dig into the hard ground to bury her, he prayed. A lion came and helped him dig.

The Golden Legend is a collection of the Lives of the Saints, compiled around 1260 by Jacobus de Voragine, a priest from Genoa. In it are hundreds of stories collected from around the Church. The entry on St Mary the Egyptian closes with these words:

And Zosimus returned to his abbey and recounted to his brethren the conversation of this holy woman Mary. And Zosimus lived an hundred years in holy life, and gave laud to God of all his gifts, and his goodness that he receiveth sinners to mercy, which with good heart turn to him, and promiseth to them the joy of heaven.

Then let us pray to this holy Mary the Egyptian that we may be here so penitent that we may come thither.

Every year during Orthodox Lent, when the Life of St Mary of Egypt would be read in liturgy, I was moved to tears. I saw in her so much of my own journey: the discovery of sex, the enjoyment of sex, and the life of someone devoted to finding “every kind of abuse of nature”. This was life to me: in fact I identified “myself” as this very thing. Her story had always told me there was hope, a way out, there was not only the chance of change but also the grace-filled reality of it. Then, one year, doing the liturgical service of a lector, I came to the part where she said, “I am amazed, Abba… that hell did not swallow me alive, when I had entangled in my net so many souls. But I think God was seeking my repentance. For He does not desire the death of a sinner but magnanimously awaits his return to Him.” And it hit me that I was speaking for myself. I was unable to finish my reading and a friend seeing my distress stepped in while I went to the corner and wept.

Had I really gone (at that point) nearly 15 years since entering the Church without realizing my sins were selfish, causing the fall of others as well as myself?

Yes.

Was God really merciful, desiring not the death of a sinner but his conversion?

Yes. And more.

The Church recognizes that to cut someone off from her sacraments because they are not pure enough is to desire the death of sinner as certainly as it would be to bless them in their sins. Both are taking the easy way out, failing to believe in and support the work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of those he seeks to convert. Beginning with Fr Victor, no priest has ever sent me away: each instead has called me to conversion in love – even when I refused to understand or pretended to be ignorant of what that conversion meant. This is how Fr V and so many other priests have accompanied me on my journey: carefully making sure I stayed on my journey, although I am no where near finished. They call me to

Self-mastery is a long and exacting work. One can never consider it acquired once and for all. It presupposes renewed effort at all stages of life… though self-knowledge, practice of an ascesis adapted to the situations that confront him, obedience to God’s commandments, exercise of the moral virtues, and fidelity to prayer.

There are those in the Church who respond to sexual sins in one of two ways: they either ignore these sins by condoning them or they demand instant resolution and purity. Either these sins do not matter, or else they matter too much. We want someone to be “fixed” before they enter the Church, or we say such language is outdated and must be changed. We want to refuse admittance to those who do not fully understand the consequences of their reception. We deny the power of the sacraments, of Christ himself, working in the lives of the persons so rejected. And we refuse to see the working out of salvation, wanting people to be cured before they ever enter the hospital. Both of these groups are afraid of risk.

Those who fit into the first group often want to justify other things as well: their own sins or other changes to doctrine and tradition. They may disguise it as a need for “justice” but what they want is to be Anglicans who can pick and choose from a list of doctrines as they would from a buffet table at the Golden Corral. They may even want to pick things up for now but put them back later ad libitum. They are afraid to risk the possibility that the ancient ways might be truth – that they may, themselves, be required to follow them. They also fear our secular world’s confusion of “tough love” with hate. Those in the second group are afraid that they will be contaminated by impurity. They are also afraid that by letting in “Those People” the church will be made to change her teaching – as if that was possible at all. They are afraid they will be damned for loving too much as if there was such a thing. For love – real Love – can never be “too much”. Both groups, in their risk aversion, will only love so much: only to a point. Both groups trip up the weaker brother who need conversion and can only get there by love.

We need Christians that will love so much that they teach what the Church teaches, and are not afraid either to say those teachings out loud. Nor are they afraid to forgive those who do not yet fully embody those teachings. We need Spiritual Fathers and Mothers, elder Brother and Sisters in the faith. This is real accompaniment: to walk with, equally guiding and guarding in love, bringing the Christian to self-mastery.

Chapter 2: My Journey

JMJ

I‘VE BEEN WORKING on a book. This post is a chapter in the book, and it’s intended to spur me on to finish the project. But it’s also marketing, you know, and I can post stuff online adding links and the like. Anyway: it’s called Not Against Flesh and Blood. The whole book is a meditation on the Angelic Warfare Confraternity in the light of same-sex attraction. This chapter is part of the Front Matter, setting up the why and wherefores of my topic. Anytime one writes about theology and sex it seems important to say, “Yes, I had sex”. So here’s that part:


My Journey

…you’re glad to find a little peace of mind here and there
But it won’t last no, no!
‘Cause you’ll have to move along some day
Till you’re restin’ in the arms of the only one who can help you…

– Love Song

IN 1992 THE BISHOPS OF the Orthodox Church in America issued Synodal Affirmations on Marriage, Family, Sexuality, and the Sanctity of Life, restating traditional teaching on human sexuality. For 12 years (or so) I was Eastern Orthodox and this was the official teaching of my church, as well as my first experience living in a church community that enforced the traditional teaching on human sexuality. While it is exactly like the Catholic teaching in almost all aspects, it contains this text:

People with homosexual tendencies are to be helped to admit these feelings to themselves and to others who will not reject or harm them. They are to seek assistance in discovering the specific causes of their homosexual orientation, and to work toward overcoming its harmful effects in their lives.

Retrieved on 18 Feb 2020

This chapter and the one that follows are two parts of a meditation arising from my own journey in response to the Church. I have been “discovering the specific causes of [my] homosexual orientation”. 

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.