The Christian & Identity – Pt 3

JMJ

THE PREVIOUS POST closed with a list of three options that apply in all cultural choices: individualized nominalism (one makes it up on their own), emergent nominalism, (one makes it up with the help of others), or objective reality (one gets to make up reactions to something that existed before one got here). The first option is an outright impossibility beyond the walls of an asylum. That’s the only place where what one says goes and is – without question – the law of the land. After the Introductory post, part 2 tried to highlight the insanity of I Define Me all by myself. This post will focus on option 2 – the emergent nominalism. The final post will share my own journey out.

Finding people to affirm you, to support you in your decisions requires a culture. This, in turn, requires compromises from the culture and from you. If one is engaged in a back-and-forth consensus of some sort then the map that arises is of shared construction. It’s not a case of “I made me” but “we made me”. This is also an engagement in peer pressure: each supports each, all support all. This is the constant affirmation needed to hold a lie in place: I affirm you. you affirm me. We validate each other. Our reality is thus only a consensus, and very fragile. Those on the outside can “attack” insiders by simply not saying yes when an assertion is made.

Needless to say, one person backing out of the consensual reality creates a drama for every member of it. We hold each other in place because if you run away, I will fall. Don’t shatter the sense of “Us-ness” by admitting that you refuse to allow your feelings to define you – or that your feelings have changed. These feelings are still your own feelings: but your feelings better be exactly the same as those the rest of us share. This process is very evident in the current gender crisis as it was in the marriage crisis in the early 21st Century: as the social media-driven sense of who “we” are changes, the “hive mind”, those who think differently or arrive at other conclusions get thrust out. Those who hold the right ideas are affirmed. Those who “think different” are named haters – just for thinking different.

In indulging the cravings they can construct a false me, like a bad costume at a party; but the real me, fully human, as God has patterned is encased, squashed, and nearly destroyed. I have not yet even met me and may not in this world unless I work at it really hard. If I’m not careful, I could die with this false self holding me down, the real me smothered under tons of blanketing lies inside, condemned to indulge cravings that have become addictions – what the Church calls passions. All it takes is following the fake pattern and ignoring the real me for long enough, that it becomes a habit to continue to do so. I become convinced that the real me is all these petty desires that can change with the weather or the physical characteristics I sexually crave. I define “Me” as “what I like about you”.  I can thus objectify you and me both, claiming, “That‘s who I am”. I get to be a list of wants:  you are a list of satisfactions. Ever try a hook-up app? It’s exactly the same game for same-sex or opposite-sex attractions: I am a list of wants. You are a list of satisfactions. “You can’t order people like out of a catalog” said a wise man once. We try to, though.

An instruction from the Congregation for Catholic Education (2005) notes a difference between the sense of same-sex attraction and the beingness of the person who feels them.

In the light of such teaching, this Dicastery, in accord with the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, believes it necessary to state clearly that the Church, while profoundly respecting the persons in question, cannot admit to the seminary or to holy orders those who practise homosexuality, present deep-seated homosexual tendencies or support the so-called “gay culture”.

Concerning the Criteria for the Discernment of Vocations with regard to Persons with Homosexual Tendencies

In fact, if one insists on the beingness of these things – if one insists these feelings are the very core of one’s being – it results in “deep seated tendencies” that the document is trying to avoid.

There is an ongoing discussion now among some Christians who experience same-sex attraction regarding the labels that should be used. Is “Gay Christians” a better choice? Queer? What? Some prefer to say they “experience same sex attraction” while others go all-out: saying “Queer” or “LGTB” using even other additions to that neo-acronymic salad. Hyphenating the faith seems to be the way to go. They seek to “affirm” their identity and “express solidarity” with the oppressed. We don’t hear many discussions about calling for “Sodomite Christians” or “Catamite Christians”, but the world is broken down even further: you’d have to avoid a lot of television comedy to not have heard of “Gay Bears”. There are “Christian Bears” too. These are part of the emergent nominalism: we are still making up our own reality, but we’re doing it together. Christian Orthodoxy is rejected as a group.

Christian tradition, contrary to modern culture in all its aspects, challenges us to listen not at all to our inner voices, our feelings, our desires, our internalized sense of self, our self-identity, or our pride. The idea that simply because we desire something the desire, itself, is good is alien to Christian thinking. It is a different form of the Prosperity Gospel which teaches that if we follow God, then our desires are good and he will fulfill them. Yet desire always leads us around by our nose, our belly, or our eyes are a violation of the divinely given human freedom. The existence of our petty desires  – even for things that might otherwise be good  – is a sign of our failure to live up to the divine pattern set for us. Christian tradition – embodied in the Saints, the Scriptures, and the Canonical texts. We fail to trust God and, instead, “do what we want”. Meanwhile, our tradition says exactly that we are to mistrust our bodies not because they are “dirty” per se, but because they tend to be wrong, misguided, selfish. In the created order we were intended dance within the will of God without necessity or desire. In the fallen order our desires become our masters and we become the slaves of our body and our passions.

In The Voyage of the Dawntreader C.S. Lewis wrote of the salvation of Eustace Scrubb. Eustace knows all the liberal “education” bywords of his day and believes them. It’s a bit humorous because the words he uses are very dated but the concepts he imagines to be true are exactly like those of our Millennial “Special Snowflake” folks today. He knows to run crying to Mommy (his real one or else the State) whenever anyone challenges his world view. Even though his real Mommy never enters the story, he threatens everyone to call her. She’s a good symbol of the UK Nanny State that was growing up in Lewis’ day. If the story was written today, I think that Mommy-The-State would have to be on every page.

When Eustace stumbles into the magic land of Narnia everything sucks because no one will cater to him. No one will tell him he’s special unless he actually does something special. No one will do as he wishes merely because he wishes it. At almost every turn it seems as if should he want something, he will either have to get it himself or else let it go. This realization makes him angry. He acts selfish rather well, but he can’t act self-sufficiency at all. (The joke is on him, of course, because real sufficiency is a product of community not self.)

In the end, grumbling, whining, and greedy, he finds himself turned into a Dragon. If you read the right sort of books, of course, you realize that dragons are a perfectly wonderful symbol for human selfishness. The story of his salvation is the story of his Un-dragoning.

First he must see that he needs others at all. Then he must communicate this to them safely (they don’t really like or trust dragons, you see, and, even the folks who charitably liked Eustace don’t know this dragon is that boy). Then he must continue as a dragon-attempting-to-be-human for a chapter or two. He’s learning what his humanity really is all this time. One night God (the Lion, Aslan) peals away the reminder of his dragonish disguise to reveal a little boy inside.

For anyone, the fake self-identity created by our sins and desires is exactly like that dragon. It scares some folks off but some folks are able to love us in spite of it. Some folks of course will love us exactly for it: Eustace was very attractive to other dragons! We have to love people through it, through their dragon skins, through our own dragon skins. Eustace was able to do things that only a dragon could do to help his friends: at one point he finds and brings a huge tree to them to replace the mast of their ship. Yet at the end of the dragon story the reader – this reader anyway – begins to weep, as the nearly human dragon is not good enough, and still has to be torn apart by the Divine Lion to let the really human-and-not-dragonish-any-more boy out.

In novels and plays, in songs and activities, “Gay” is defined as “What Gay People do”. “This is gay – the community is building it.” This creates a false sense of identity based on a new collective thought: no longer is our family, church, marriage, etc, defining us, but now it is our bar buddies and sexual playmate who do so. That redundancy is never called into question – to do so is to question everyone playing the game. One becomes so attached to the false self he or she has created that they are convinced this self is the real self. And even in departing from the City of Gay (in contrast to the City of God), everything must come with us. Yet, when we desire to stop being defined by our desires, our cravings, and live in, through, and for Christ – he is Objective Reality – what are we to call ourselves?

The Christian & Identity – Pt 2

JMJ

ONCE UPON A TIME, men  —  at least  —  who acted outside of the norms of Christian culture and chose to engage in their sexual desires for other men were called Sodomites. For this reason, the present author has been accused of using the term uncritically without considering it, or “unpacking” it. On the contrary, these four articles are exactly an unpacking and consideration of the term. As will be noted, however, in the previous article after accepting the idea that the Bible was talking about what would be called “hospitality” in that culture, I wondered why anyone leaving the destroyed city would want to claim such a tag at all. Our tags, the names we take to ourselves, are important. They say more about who we think we are, and how we value ourselves than we care to admit.

If you were in a culture where your lover-on-the-side was accepted, you got married and had kids and had sex on the side in ways easy to arrange. In these cultures, same-sex action was often more socially acceptable than opposite-sex action because the latter could make a woman unfit for marriage or do other social damage. Alexander the Great may have had paramours, but it was his wife and her (lack of) children that people were terribly concerned with. If you were in a culture where your lover-on-the-side was not accepted you got married and had kids and had your sex on the side in ways difficult to arrange. In both cases, you did the cultural thing because they did not imagine that you “really are” gay rather than straight, but rather than you “really are” a member of a given local culture and this is how human sexuality is expressed within that culture. You fulfilled your cultural obligations to procreate and no one asked questions about your inner being or your self-identity. There was no term used to describe different classes of people engaged in this activity.

In point of fact, for describing same-sex action, at least in older English usage, there were two terms: Sodomites and Catamites. Both were engaged in same-sex sexual expression, but the Sodomites were the active parties. Catamites were the passive parties. This latter word is the Anglicized Latin for the Greek name “Ganymede” and it was intended as a flirtatious compliment, carrying all the implications of a youthful, attractive, athletic guy. Becoming someone’s “Boy” in ancient Athens could be a position of great honor, especially if one’s partner was of high social standing. With the revolution in thought that came via God’s revelation in Christ, the sense of flirtation and social motion this word held in Ancient Greece and Rome was removed. It became the reverse: a denigration. At one time in the first millennium being a catamite – even without one’s consent – made a man canonically unfit to serve at the altar as Christian clergy.

“Homosexuality” was originally only a psychological term, devoid of cultural content. The term became a noun, “homosexual” and the noun was attached to people. Popular usage wasn’t fond of the clinical term so other terms – both positive and negative – arose. These labels, together with any cultural baggage, must be recognized as social constructs of the modern and postmodern eras. These labels get applied to individual persons and are used to describe a situation or feeling. This is, itself, a new thing – for they were never used that way before. The labels Sodomite and Catamite are unimportant today exactly because no Sodomite was ever gay: neither in ancient Sodom nor in Victorian England. Not one of our ancestors would have understood the concepts conveyed by “I am gay” or “queer culture”. “Queer Culture” is entirely fabricated and most if not all of that fabrication is only a reaction to other things: it evolved mostly in the last 100 years give or take. So fluid is the understanding of “Gay” that the entire inter-cultural dictionary had completely changed three or four times since 1983. One can spend endless hours regaling “the young” with stories of how it was “back in the day”, by which one may mean the Nixon Administration, or before AIDS, or in the midst of the plague and Reagan years, or now with PrEP. The words change and the pop-cultural referents change. One can pick sitcoms and TV dramas of the 60s and note them as “Gay” or “Straight”. I Dream of Jeannie and The Partridge Family were straight, but Bewitched and The Brady Bunch were both gay, for example. These tags were terribly important in the culture at the time. They are meaningless now. We do not get to project our cultural ideas and modern inventions backwards. Alexander was not “really” gay, nor was any other character out of history: because there was no gay. There was no straight. We made these up: they are social constructs and nothing more. That these fluid names now describe classes of ontology is unusual and unhealthy.

Our choices are no longer based on cultural obligations. We do not sense the obligation to get married and have children just because “that’s what you do”. In fact, we deny the validity of cultural expectations, as such, against which one is measured. We insist there is no social dogma. (You’re not the boss of me!) If one doesn’t accept the social dogma that there is no social dogma one is accused of being narrow-minded. Our Modern Creed is: I feel thus, thus I will act – and none may say me nay. We make entire life choices based on how we feel. We go a step further and say that our feelings create who we are. I feel thus and so I am thus. We are so intent on this doctrine that, sometimes when feelings change, we deny the validity of the new ones. We start to medically reassign you, based on your feelings, as soon as possible. No going back, sorry. I recently saw a tweet where a parent was saying they had spend $15k on “gender reassignment” for their kid and when the boy no longer wanted to do it, the parent felt like she had wasted all that money.

When mid-20th Century Generations of youth and teens went “looking for themselves” their answers were all feelings and emotions. Those children have cut off their children from a culture of absolutes and hard facts. Only in this relativism could we construct an idea of individual feelings and of “my truth”. Love is a feeling. I feel love this way. You can’t tell me I don’t feel love this way. You can’t judge me because of my feelings. I will or will not act on those feelings based on my own choices; ie  based on my other feelings. So embedded is this concept in our culture that we are surprised to learn that “Great Lovers” of history have no stories of “Falling in Love”, of feelings. Tristan and Isolt had to be drugged into “Falling in love”. Most normal people didn’t treat such feelings as a valid guide to action. Lancelot and Guinevere are the destroyers of Camelot, not the romantic hero and heroine.  Romeo and Juliet followed there feelings and a whole lot of teens had to die as a result of the chaos. That’s not love: that’s selfishness and evil.

We can hear Joseph Campbell explain that “Love” and “Romance” is really a modern invention – and he has nothing but chronological arrogance disguised as pity aimed at those cultures and people who didn’t “follow their bliss”. We know so much better, finally, now. How many people will die because of my personal feelings?

This is a personalized nominalism – nothing means anything of itself. Things have only the meaning I give them. My feelings decide my meaning. I validate myself: I am my own witness. My feelings, desires, and cravings are the only real me there is. From this grows the message of “gay culture” and the rest of our consumption-driven world. Naturally, your meanings will differ and so we must “accept” each other as equally true. Oddly no one says that for everyone. Not all feelings are equally valid, right? Each one of us, claiming all individual truths are valid, can think of at least one politician whose truths are not valid. That sense – and I assume you have it – that one politician, either right now or in history, was making invalid choices indicates a sense that the dance is not pure chaos: something is going on here that we can suss out if only we work hard enough at it.

So there are three options here:

  1. There is no order at all – you’re making all this up in your mind.
  2. There is order, and when you find more about it, you’ll discover it has no meaning or drive at all. It is self-organizing at best.
  3. There is order, it has meaning and a driver, a volitional cause behind it.

Option 1 doesn’t work. Personalized nominalism is a fun place to start but we all need other people to back us up. You must support me in my choices. So we go looking. Option 2 takes over. Think how many coming out stories involve leaving: leaving the family that was stifling me, leaving the church that was stifling me, leaving the small town that was stifling me in order to find “The Real Me”. Adults who discovered their “real” feelings late in life had to leave all the above and also leave the marriage that was stifling them and, often, the kids that were stifling them. These stories paint “coming out” as a healthy part of “individuation”, breaking out of the universal into the individual, of liberation from the family and social norms into “just me”. The unacknowledged lie, however, is the claim that the ontological “just me” exists at all. There is no such thing as an individual. We are who we are because of who’s around us. To be you and to be in communion with other beings is the same thing – even if we deny it. If you leave communion with your family, your church, the Boy Scouts, whatever, you still have to be in communion with someone to be a person at all.

Option 2 fails eventually. No community can be pure enough. I won’t want to be binary, I want to be trinary. I want to be a different set of pronouns. I want to make stuff up. But I demand you let me do so.

You can switch back and forth between options 1 and 2. The implication of both option 1 and option 2 is that nothing matters. There is no reason to value your life or mine, there is no reason to value anyone’s life at all. It doesn’t matter if Trump or Obama is the president. It matters not if Bill Clinton and Trump have spent their lives molesting women or just lying to voters. It doesn’t matter if Fidel Castro imprisoned his political enemies or if Abraham Lincoln did. There is no reason to imagine it’s “good” to protect the ocean, or bad to vote fascist. There is no reason to imagine that any human action is better (or worse) than any other human action. If option 1 or 2 is the way the universe works, tell me why anything matters. I did not want to live in that world. The sense of “this is not fair” was too real. If I wanted to ask for “just wages” or “equality” or “better environmental choices” then I was appealing to something external, something that should – in theory – be the same for anyone who thought about it for a while. Else the only thing that the 20th Century dictators did wrong is run afoul of American Cultural Imperialism. Why is my human reason any better or more valid than Stalin’s? Any logical appeal against the dictators of the 20th Century or against the politicians of the 21st is an appeal to option three.

If Option 3 is the way things are… then maybe my identity is NOT up to me. Maybe these tags need to be sidelined so that the social constructs which no longer apply to me can fall away.

The Christian & Identity – Pt 1

JMJ

THE STORY OF SODOM and Gomorrah will be familiar to you, if only because you have been exposed to the horror story version or the sexualized version in some movie or TV show. You may also know the Bible Version in Genesis 18 and 19. Americans (religious or not) are prone to taking brief passages of the Scripture to make their point and ignoring what comes first and follows after. It is, however, the context that makes the story – not the meaning we add to it.

The Icon that opens each of these posts (there will be four or so in the series) is generally styled “The Holy Trinity” and it was painted by St Andrei Rublev (1360-1430). Done in 1425, the theme is more properly called “The Hospitality of Abraham” because it shows the three Angels visiting Abraham and Sarah, as recording in Genesis 18:1-8ff:

And the Lord appeared to him in the vale of Mambre as he was sitting at the door of his tent, in the very heat of the day. And when he had lifted up his eyes, there appeared to him three men standing near to him: and as soon as he saw them, he ran to meet them from the door of his tent, and adored down to the ground. And he said: Lord, if I have found favour in thy sight, pass not away from thy servant. But I will fetch a little water, and wash ye your feet, and rest ye under the tree. And I will set a morsel of bread, and strengthen ye your heart, afterwards you shall pass on: for therefore are you come aside to your servant. And they said: Do as thou hast spoken. Abraham made haste into the tent to Sara, and said to her: Make haste, temper together three measures of flour, and make cakes upon the hearth. And he himself ran to the herd, and took from thence a calf, very tender and very good, and gave it to a young man, who made haste and boiled it. He took also butter and milk, and the calf which he had boiled, and set before them: but he stood by them under the tree.

This story of Hospitality is the prologue to the story Sodom. After a wonderful conversation where Sarah laughs at God, the three men get ready to go.

And when the men rose up from thence, they turned their eyes towards Sodom: and Abraham walked with them, bringing them on the way. And the Lord said: Can I hide from Abraham what I am about to do: Seeing he shall become a great and mighty nation, and in him all the nations of the earth shall be blessed? For I know that he will command his children, and his household after him, to keep the way of the Lord, and do judgment and justice: that for Abraham’s sake, the Lord may bring to effect all the things he hath spoken unto him. And the Lord said: The cry of Sodom and Gomorrha is multiplied, and their sin is become exceedingly grievous. I will go down and see whether they have done according to the cry that is come to me; or whether it be not so, that I may know.

Traditional and very conservative Jewish Biblical commentary is filled with many entirely non-sexual reasons for that cry that ascended to God: greed, abuse of slaves, injustice, pride; lack of care for the poor that was so extreme you could be punished for feeding the homeless  –  like in Fort Lauderdale and some twenty other locations in the USA.

The Midrash tells two tales of righteous women who dared extend a helping hand to beggars and were put to death:

Two maidens of Sodom met at the well, where they had both gone to drink and fill up their water jugs. One girl asked her friend, “Why is your face so pale?” Her friend answered, “We have nothing to eat at home, and are dying of starvation.” Her compassionate friend filled her own jug with flour, and exchanged it for her friend’s jug of water. When the Sodomites found out about her act, they burnt her to death.

A second tale:

It was announced in Sodom, “Whoever will give bread to a poor person will be burnt at the stake.”

Plotit, the daughter of Lot, who was married to a prominent Sodomite, once saw a poor man who was so hungry that he was unable to stand. She felt sorry for him. From then on, she made sure to pass him every day on her way to the well, and she would feed him some food that she had stashed in her water jug.

People wondered how the man managed to live. Upon investigation, they discovered her act and prepared to burn her. Before she died, she turned to G-d and cried, “Master of the world, carry out justice on my behalf!” Her cries pierced the heavens, and at that moment G-d said, “I will go down and see if what they have done is as bad as the outcry that has reached Me.”

Moderns with a more liberal political agenda like to make much of such stories and say Sodom was destroyed for violations of the Desert Code of Hospitality. This is truth! The Synagogue lays the Hospitality of Abraham for the three angels specifically in sharp contrast to the lack of hospitality in Sodom. These texts are read every year together on the same Sabbath. We can learn much by meditating on how Abraham (and, later, Lot) treats the Three Strangers, who happen to be the Holy Trinity in Christian typology and iconography, as compared to how all others in Sodom treat the same Three Strangers.

This understanding is good and true as far as it goes but, of course, words matter: when we moderns hear “hospitality” we do not hear “matter of life and death in the desert” but rather “Grandma was always a gracious hostess” or something about Waffle House, and a number of Yelp stars. No matter how many times it might be explained, the divine obligation of care for the stranger (regardless of culture or divinity) is totally lost as a social responsibility in today’s culture. In rejecting Syrian refugees, or Latin American children, America becomes another Sodom. Such hospitality, in the better places (not Fort Lauderdale), is relegated as an obligation to the state and forgotten by individuals and, God help us, even by Churches. In the worst places, like Sodom and Fort Lauderdale, it is outlawed all together. Even Churches in Fort Sodomdale fail to protest.

Words matter on the other side of the equation too: and the sexual content is not entirely missing from the traditional Jewish reading. Conservatives hear “this is about hospitality” and rightly think that liberals are trying to turn the Church into a secular Denny’s: open for all comers regardless of moral comportment after conversion. Certainly, though, “hospitality” should include not wanting to have your guests raped by strangers or by one’s bar buddies.

When the cities were destroyed, God led Lot and his family out of the way of harm. Yet while they were fleeing, Lot’s wife turned around to look back and she was turned into a pillar of salt. Scripture never relates a new marriage and so Lot, returning to his people as a widower became, to create a title for him, a Celibate Ex-Sodomite. It is this title that will carry us through these meditations: What is a Celibate Ex-Sodomite?

As an American, I’m used to hyphens. Nearly everyone is hyphenated: Irish-Americans, African-Americans, Carpatho-Russyn-Americans, whatever: there are hyphens everywhere. When they left their home and moved elsewhere, did Lot’s family become Sodo-Somethingites? When Lot and the kids (minus the Missus, remember) showed up at Abraham’s tent after the destruction of Sodom and all the plain, did they identify themselves as former or ex-Sodomites? Or did they just try to blend in, becoming Abrahamites and good citizens of whatever country they found? Much of the rest of the world does not share our American fascination with hyphens. Members of another culture may move to a new country and yet mentally stay whatever they were when they left. Certainly, many aboriginal people want no part of the invading culture: no hyphens, thank you. They have our own name for invaders – for you and me. The idea of a sort of portable identity you plug into a new thing like a USB drive is not quite so common outside of the USA. I’m betting it would have been even less portable if your city had been destroyed by an act of God.

If you live in a wealthy city, in a prideful city, in a city known not only for her wealth but also her excess, greed and arrogance, what do people think of you? Pay attention to how many times San Francisco gets destroyed in movies.  In a way Sodom was worse than the Fort Lauderdale of its day: it was the Rome of its day, the New York of its day; the source of the American Tourist scourge of its day. If you showed up and people found you were from Sodom, how would they have treated you? If you were a stranger traveling from a city known internationally for its lack of care for strangers, would you have dared to say, “Hi, I’m a Sodomite”? Lot and the kids would have discarded this now-terrifying identity as quickly as they could. Some fond memories (and some horrifying ones, I’m sure), may be more than a little educational – even told as fascinating stories – but, “that’s not who we are, any more.”

There are three more parts to this essay, so I will wrap up here, with the basic point made: after Sodom was destroyed for lack of hospitality, for greed, for driving consumption that included sex, I doubt Lot and the kids would have claimed to be from there any more.

7LW: Unneeded Substitution

JMJ

Today you will be with me in Paradise.

TODAY WAS A BIT of a rough one for me: it began at 4AM with the news that my mom was in the hospital (but somewhat ok as compared to last night). Getting to work I was alerted to the news that one of seven speakers I had arranged for Good Friday might not be there for their own family emergency and a parent in the hospital. So with two hours to go I locked myself in my office with a double espresso and composed a backup essay which, thankfully, I didn’t need to deliver. It follows:

In her writings, Saint Catherine of Siena teaches, “All the way to heaven is heaven because Jesus says I am the way.”

Jesus says to the thief on the cross, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.”

The thief is on a cross… Jesus is on a cross. What can this mean in Paradise? Today.

My road to the fullness of the Catholic Faith is broken. I made choices early in my life to prioritize certain aspects of my experience over my religious faith and, as a result, my faith started to fall apart.

For a long time I doubted things like the Resurrection and the Virgin Birth, the sacraments, the Bible, the Church, but – at the same time – I struggled knowing I was making moral choices contrary to the historic teachings of the faith.

At the point (sometime in college) where I realized the only part of the Nicene Creed I could say was the first word – “I” – I left my Episcopal Congregation. Then I journeyed outside of the church denying the faith entirely.

After about ten years something was still missing from my “spiritual but not religious” life.

I returned to a liberal Mainline congregation – where I could still live by my choices. But something was still off and so I went first to Eastern Orthodoxy, finally to the Catholic Church. I walked into this building and this community five years ago.

Leaving liberal, progressive Christianity for the traditional faith, I knew I was making new choices that were contrary to my earlier life. There could be no compromise if my faith was to take priority. Something had to change: I would have to let go of those earlier choices.

This new struggle began, seeking healing from the wounds caused by those earlier choices. Wounds leave scars, tearing muscles, and making one week in certain areas. Moral choices, as Saint Paul says, can sear the conscience so that it becomes nearly impossible to make the right choice again in the future without God’s grace.

When Saint Paul says, “I am crucified with Christ” he means that this life, the choices we’ve made, the choices I’ve made become the cross upon which we nail ourselves; hanging there like the thief begging Christ to remember me in his kingdom.

When walking away from former choices toward Christ becomes our whole way of life he says “today you will be with me in Paradise”.

The former choices, these ways of life that were contrary to the faith, that were actually ways of death become the sacrifice made Thanksgiving.

Eventually, Jesus called me back. My Mom said, “No matter where you went, he never let go of your hand, did he?”

I discovered that she was right: all the time that I was walking – even when I was walking away in pride – I was actually walking towards Jesus.

My Sacrifice, once nailed to the cross, he takes and blesses.
All of the broken road turns it into my path to him.

Jesus is our Paradise hanging on the cross and when we hang on the cross with him we are in Paradise today.

All the way to heaven is heaven because Jesus says I am the way.

Our Accidents, Ourselves

JMJ

Know yourself is one of the maxims of Delphi, γνῶθι σεαυτόν gnothi seauton, which has come down to us by way of Socrates and others: Know Thyself. Finding seems to be the first step to knowing. So, “find yourself” (a la the 1960s) and then “come in and know me better,” says the Ghost of Christmas Present. The first question that arises is what is this myself that I should know? It’s not who am I but rather, what, exactly, is the I that I should be looking to know? One needs to identify the subject long before one can know the location, height, depth, and width of the subject. This is, in some ways, the reverse of standard detection work. In this one finds clues leading to the person who committed a crime. But for knowing yourself you need to find the person first – before the other things come into play.

Two stories highlight what we might describe as the fungibility of identity. As a child, I lived in the Deep South: rural Georgia within a couple of hours’ drive of the Florida border. In fifth grade, my family moved to upstate New York where my step-father’s family lived. Once there, the cultural status of two groups had changed for in upstate New York both Italians and Jews were considered white. They were not so in the Deep South in the 1960s. Although my childhood brain did not uses such words at the time, this was a realization of the cultural construction of whiteness and race. Of course, even in upstate New York, there were still racial “others” but Italians and Jews were on “our side.”

More recently, a friend tells me the story of a parish in his town which was traditionally an African American parish. When the founding pastor retired, the local Ordinary had no available clergy and so accepted the offer of help from a priest from South Africa. There was a discovery in those days that clergy from South Africa are not at all of the same mindset as African Americans! In America, we tend to focus on one thing – in this case, skin color – and draw from that an idea of the people involved. While my friend correctly made the point that race is part of a person’s identity, it is very much a cultural identity: it’s not based on the skin color alone.

As I hope these stories indicate, we seem to be doing this wrong. We do this, as well, with sexuality. As with race, we use the “sexual identity” of the person to categorize the entire being. In Catholic anthropology (our understanding of the human being) each person, each self, is a union of soul and body: a spiritual-physical hybrid that is a little lower than the angels who have no physical element, and a little higher than the animals who have no spiritual component. The self is exactly this hybrid. Coming to “know thyself” is coming to know this hybrid being. Americans often confuse mere aspects of the self (usually spiritual ones, but sometimes physical ones) with the entire self. So how are we to “know thyself”? Our culture wants to do this whole thing backward: we want to find clues to the person – in order to know the person at all. Especially in the first person, though, who is doing the searching at all? Who discovered my sexual or racial identity?

This question of who is me has haunted me since my mid-twenties, even in the midst of my own coming out process of “discovering my sexuality”. Coming out changed my relationship with my friends and family. It changed my relationship with the Episcopal church – which was then my faith community and also where I was employed. Most importantly, it changed my understanding of (my relationship with) myself. How can these things change so much and yet I am still me? Am I still me? In those days a friend said yes, that this had been me all along and now (at age 24) I was becoming more of myself. This was the understanding of “coming out” that was and still is described in the community. This is why someone might come out at the age of 70 and break up with their spouse and move out. They have finally found themself. Who were they before, though? Before coming out is one a shell of oneself? A shadow? A fairy changeling? Is one a fake person before coming out? A lie? Who was doing the searching for this “lost self”?

At issue is a question of ontology: what am I? Specifically in this essay, what does it mean to “be” gay? It stresses some out who feel that “gay people are forced into celibacy by the Church.” However, that presumes that “gay people” is an ontological category. To rephrase this question in the midst of my own journey: who was I before I came out? Who was I when I was “out”? And who am I now, trying to live in active conformity to the Church’s teaching on sexuality? If someone says, “I am gay” what makes them different from others? If one stops using that language, what is the difference?

For a long while I bought into the idea that in some way a personal identity is performative: one is what one does. This idea was once very common among sexual minorities. By this logic, anyone who has even once had sex with someone of the same sex “really is” gay – even if they reject that label. What becomes, then, of someone who, by choice, no longer engages in this activity? What is the identity of someone who no longer does gay things? In light of performative identity, they are still “secretly” gay. Once you’ve performed it in any way you’re tagged with it. There was a long time in the movement when those who engaged in gay sex – but did so secretly – were styled as “only homosexuals”. One had to be out to be “really gay”. Why do you flaunt your sexuality? Well, to be gay, of course: otherwise I’m only homosexual. One must be out, loud, and proud to be gay. Marching in parades or wearing pink triangle pins made one gay even though one may not have engaged in sex for a long while. This was a variation on the performative definition, only using a different performance and stage.

At some point in the last 40 years, the accepted idea of sexual identity drifted from being performative to emotive. One is gay simply because one feels a sexual attraction to members of the same sex. It matters not if one ever does it: one is still gay by virtue of the feelings. This is how one can be “secretly gay” even if they’ve ever done anything gay at all. They still have these emotions, these feelings.

The emotivist definition allows modern folks to project this issue back through time. Anyone can be imagined to have felt this way by reading clues in their life. Thus history is filled with people whom we imagine felt this and they were all secretly gay! In the Bible and Church history, then, we can project that same-sex couples were “really gay” even if they are never depicted as having sex. See those love poems? Gay. Further, we can see those historic places where same-sex action is depicted as also really gay. Greece, for example, and the Isle of Lesbos. Gay! Why? Because in all of these cases we read in our modern emotional understanding of the feelings. They can be imagined to feel like us, so they are like us. That’s so gay.

The emotivist definition now runs the show: I feel this, therefore I am this. I need only imagine that you, also, feel this, therefore you are also this. The process of “finding yourself” now becomes a process of simply being aware of these feelings and then acting on them. But this part is not what causes your “self” to change: it’s the feelings themselves. In 40 years this emotive idea has expanded to excuse a lot of things: thus it becomes possible to say (as I heard recently), “I don’t care if he was married to a woman, the fact that he gets excited about [a list of ‘gay culture things’] means he is gay.” These things were art, antiques, and good food, by the way.

This came home to me as someone angrily fought with me at the entrance to my parish church. How could I go in there where they oppress gays? I had to admit I’ve never believed myself to be oppressed by the Catholic Church or the Orthodox Church and that I was trying to live the traditional teachings. “But you still feel this attraction?” And I said yes. And he said, “Gaslighting…” and stomped out. He assumed the idea that identity is emotive. It doesn’t matter what I do in his eyes. One is this simply because one feels it.

We have “emotivised” a lot of things, actually. We don’t limit it to sex and sexuality: in fact, we allow it in cases of race and even age. (Age is a number, you’re only as old as you feel…) Politics and language are almost entirely about feelings now. Painful moral choices are relegated to emotional readings. Things that make me feel bad are bad. Things that make me feel good are good. People who cause any sort of pain or discomfort are accused of making “microaggressions” and of “hate”.

None of this is to deny there are Christians who experience same-sex attraction, but what does it mean for a Christian to “be” gay now? As open relationships and polyamory become more common amongst those in same-sex relationships, those who identified as gay Christians experience a disconnect since they seek to replicate monogamy and a sort of 1950s-style family life. What is one “performing” when the definition of “the right way to do gay” has changed? If one doesn’t accept the current ideological line of the gay community, is one actually gay? To “be gay” now requires not only sexual choices but also an inclusion of “trans” and other items which in the past were not part of the deal. Can one in today’s world “feel gay” if one rejects gender ideology, abortion, divorce, and an overall culture of disposable people and relationships? Rejecting all these things often leaves one excluded from the “polite company” encompassed by the rainbow flag. So it seems that there may be a right way and a wrong way to be gay. If one is not doing gay right, is one performing it at all?

How is it, then, that we are who we are? How can God “make me this way” and yet tell me that to feel this is a sin? Feeling is the right word there – since mere feelings of this are the defining category. Notice how many times the Church’s teaching – and the reaction to it – gets attached only to the “being gay” by which they mean “feeling gay”. No one is able to answer the question about “what makes you different” without using either doing or feeling. Is it possible we’re wrong? Is “feeling this way” and “doing this” only a false consciousness? What if there is a better way to think about this – or at least a way to open up the conversation? Is it possible we’re going about this backward? In other words on the next page I’m going to argue that one is not “more” of oneself after coming out – but less.

Substance, Form, Matter & Accident

St Thomas Aquinas, following Aristotle, understood reality to be made up of substances. A philosophical substance is not the same thing as a scientific element. A substance is a specific unique thing in the order of creation. A star is a substance as is a kilt. A car is a substance as is a dog. Coffee is a substance as is water, heat, and a cup.

On that last example, let’s build out a further set of things: form and matter. As substance is a philosophical concept and not a scientific one so, also, are matter and form. Matter is the physical part of something’s isness. We never see matter without form though: the latter is the spiritual part, the conceptual part if you will, of something’s isness. When matter (which is generic) coheres with form (which is specific) we have a unique substance. If a cup of coffee can be imagined as a specific substance (instead of a combination of them) the liquid might be seen as the matter and the cup the form. This analogy breaks down really fast so don’t think about it too much, but do try, for a moment, to imagine a coffee hour at church with no cups.

Finally, a substance, comprised of matter and form, has qualities that, philosophically, are called accidents. A cup of coffee can be cold or hot, iced or a latte (or an iced latte). It can have lots of cream and sugar or be a medium roast. It can be good or bad. It can be stale, have a lid, a paper cup holder; be made out of ceramic, paper, or plastic. It can be Turkish or Thai, Italian or french roast, it can be instant, organic, or decaffeinated. This can go on ad infinitum. While I might quibble about caffeine and instant, each of these accidents can change or be missing even, while we still have a cup of coffee. The accidents can change but the substance remains because its form and matter still cohere.

Now, wrap these philosopical terms around a human person.

In Catholic anthropology each person is, properly, an individual substance: they have each their own form and matter, with their own accidents. The soul is the form of each person: it is created ex nihilo (out of nothing) at the moment of conception. Your physical matter is 50% Mommy’s DNA and 50% Daddy’s, but your form is 100% God’s and you are a divinely-directed substance with your own power and presence in God’s created order. There are also accidents to your person: your hair color, your race, your emotions, your tastes, your height, your eye color, your heart rate, etc. These things can come and go without your substance ever being changed. You are still you when you’re angry or happy. Snickers is wrong in that you’re still you when you’re hungry. You’re still you when you are dressed up or down. You are still you when you are eating or sleeping, when you are dirty or clean. You are you if you get wounded in an accident, have a limb decapitated, or when your hair gets grey and falls out. You’re still the same you when you take hormone shots. You are you even when your accidents change.

How then are we to live?

It stresses some out who feel that “gay people are forced into celibacy by the Church.” However, that presumes that “gay people” is an ontological category. As I hoped to show above, the definition has changed so many times there is no real “gay” to point at. When someone of my age group spoke of “queer theology” in the 80s we were not speaking of “LGBTQ++” theology as it is used now.

So, there’s the Big Bang which brings all of Universe, formless and void into being. Then there’s the Planck Epoch 10-43 seconds after the big bang, gravity happened. So a flash of light, then light pulling together. By 1 second… mass. Then by 20 mins… plasma. “After recombination and decoupling, the universe was transparent but the clouds of hydrogen only collapsed very slowly to form stars and galaxies, so there were no new sources of light.” (Wiki)
There was light…
Light divided from the darkness…
And the firmament divided…
The firmament populated with stars…

There was a big bang of matter and form, but then accidents happened. Gravity, substances, things happened after the Bang. It begins to feel to me as if that is true of humans as well. As I mentioned before, your physical matter is 50% Mommy’s DNA and 50% Daddy’s, but your form is 100% God’s and you are a divinely-directed substance with your own power and presence in God’s created order. Your accidents happen though. It seems like sexuality, per se, is a gift from God. However what happens, how it unfolds in each life, based on things around, psychology, etc., this all seems to be unrelated to the initial beginning.

You already see where I’m going with this, but one’s sexual expression is only an accident. Our culture treats it as if it is our form (soul) and we wrestle with it as if it has a moral weight on its own. Yet the concept of sexuality-as-being is entirely new.

A Christian is called to live chastely by which we mean “according to the teachings of the Church”. Thus, there is only one way that sexual activity is in keeping with God’s plan for our salvation even though there are many ways in which one may opt to express their sexuality. However expressing sexuality, as such, is not what sex is for. It’s an accident of the person, not the person. In different cultures, it has arisen and been expressed differently.

There were men and women who engaged in same-sex action in the past, yes. But they were simply human persons (each was their own substance) who were engaged in certain sexual actions: they were not labeled differently as persons. They were not conceived of as different categories of persons by virtue of what they did. In fact, in many cultures which approved (or at least did not disapprove) of such actions, everyone still got married and had children as a social obligation. Some also had lovers on the side. These lovers may have been of the same sex or opposite sex, as one might prefer. They were not “gay” as we think of it today. When we call these ancients “gay” or “lesbian” it is a projection back on their culture, a form of historic colonialism where we make the past out to be like our modern, capitalist America. The moral sense of these accidents (sex acts) differed from culture to culture, but at no point were people not human beings. At no point was their status as an ontological substance changed or challenged.

In our culture, we have elected to read from the accident (the emotions, the feelings, the action) to the whole person. We do this also with race. We see a person’s skin color and refuse to see any more. The person is there. We think of our accidents as “ourselves”. Yes, some accidents are more permanent than others, but they are still only accidents: St Paul says, in Christ, we are neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free. Our accidents do not define us – even if they clearly remain. One is still a person of a certain age and standing on society but in baptism one can be transubstantiated if you will: one is now being conformed to Christ (albeit rather slowly because of our sins).

Catholic Anthropology insists that we are body-and-soul eternally united into one being. The feelings, as such, even the actions of the body, are only accidents to this eternal spiritual/material hybrid being which is each of us.

So the construction of sexuality has changed and the content of the label changes repeatedly. We are drawing boundaries based only on desire. In tagging a difference between, on the one hand, our brothers and sisters in Christ who experience same-sex attraction and those, on the other hand, who do not share this experience, we’re placing a division where there is none. We’re treating a constantly-shifting cultural marker as if it were an ontological reality. In doing so we’re denying the reality of the substance of each person, using the accident of “their sexuality” as a sort of synecdoche for the entire person. Yet, since that accident is only culturally constructed, it’s not even an actual part of the person being indicated in the language.

What does it mean to be a “gay Christian”? This whole essay has been an attempt to indicate there is no logical answer to that question -there are only culturally constructed boundaries. These boundaries move so much that one cannot say “I am this…” since the words mean different things at different times. Thinking in this way, we are all directed towards chastity, and we can all also live within the Church’s teaching. It’s not that “gay people are forced…” it’s that there is no separate class of people: we are all called to the same thing. We have different paths to get there though, and different crosses to carry. But we are carrying them to the same ends: the integration of the whole self into a process of salvation.

Eros Envisioned Beatifically

JMJ

Several things presented themselves to your host this morning for contemplation and synthesis. They span several decades in terms of life experience, wrapping themselves around a playlist called “sacred heart”, wherein we avoid the sentimentality of many “Jesus is my boyfriend” praise and worship songs by going right for the eroticism of popular love songs. It was k.d. lang’s “Constant Craving” that triggered this line of thought. “Maybe,” she sings. “A great magnet pulls / All souls to what’s true.” St Thomas, the realization dawns, agrees: this “constant craving has always been.”

C.S. Lewis’ The Four Loves is perhaps known to the reader. This seminal work explores four different Greek words used in the Bible, all of which can be translated as “love”. Lewis explores the meaning of each and their application to the Christian life. Briefly they are:

Eros or erotic desire
Storge, familial or affective love
Philia, friendship
Agape, divine, disinterested charity

It is this last which Lewis ranks highest. On a scale of one to ten Agape is at infinity and beyond. Lewis may have missed how the other loves can be divine or, more to the point, the part they play in our salvation.

In Catholic teaching all love, properly ordered, is divinely gifted to us to draw us to God. God is love, as St John says. The Catechism agrees – but it uses all the Latin words for love:

God is Love (Caritas)

218 In the course of its history, Israel was able to discover that God had only one reason to reveal himself to them, a single motive for choosing them from among all peoples as his special possession: his sheer gratuitous love (amorem). And thanks to the prophets Israel understood that it was again out of love (amorem) that God never stopped saving them and pardoning their unfaithfulness and sins.

219 God’s love (amor) for Israel is compared to a father’s love (amori) for his son. His love (amat) for his people is stronger than a (amor amore) mother’s for her children. God loves (amat) his people more than a bridegroom his beloved (dilectam); his love (amor) will be victorious over even the worst infidelities and will extend to his most precious gift: “God so loved (dilexit) the world that he gave his only Son.”

220 God’s love (Dilectio) is “everlasting”: “For the mountains may depart and the hills be removed, but my steadfast love (misericordia) shall not depart from you.” Through Jeremiah, God declares to his people, “I have loved (caritate) you with an everlasting love (dilexi); therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you (misericordia).”

221 But St. John goes even further when he affirms that “God is love” (caritas): God’s very being is love. (ipsum Dei Esse est amor). By sending his only Son and the Spirit of Love (Spiritum amoris) in the fullness of time, God has revealed his innermost secret: God himself is an eternal exchange of love (Ipse aeterne est amoris commercium), Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and he has destined us to share in that exchange.

Notice there how many times “Amor” or erotic love is used. Yes, Caritas (charity or agape) is mentioned as is “dilexi” which can be rendered “like” or “fondness for”. But it is “Amor” that becomes the very nature of God, the very being of God is Amor, and he is an “eternal exchange of Amor”. There’s something here about divine desire for us – about our desire for God

This quest goes way back. My former (Episcopal) Pastor, Donald Schell, pointed out in a class on the Church Fathers that St Ignatius of Antioch says in his Epistle to the Romans, “ο εμος ερως εσταυρωται,” “my eros has been crucified…” He is not speaking of his eros being “turned off” or killed. Who or what is his eros? Is he speaking of Jesus as his eros? Or is he speaking of his personal desire being made cruciform? “I desire the bread of God, the heavenly bread, the bread of life, which is the flesh of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who became afterwards of the seed of David and Abraham; and I desire the drink of God, namely His blood, which is incorruptible love and eternal life.”

Properly ordered, our very desire is turned to God-ward. We yearn for God. We thirst for God.

When it is properly ordered, our eros draws us to God. Pope Benedict wrote in 2005, “eros is somehow rooted in man’s very nature; Adam is a seeker, who “abandons his mother and father” in order to find woman; only together do the two represent complete humanity and become “one flesh”. The second aspect is equally important. From the standpoint of creation, eros directs man towards marriage, to a bond which is unique and definitive; thus, and only thus, does it fulfil its deepest purpose. Corresponding to the image of a monotheistic God is monogamous marriage. Marriage based on exclusive and definitive love becomes the icon of the relationship between God and his people and vice versa. God’s way of loving becomes the measure of human love. This close connection between eros and marriage in the Bible has practically no equivalent in extra-biblical literature.”

But more than our desire, it is also God’s desire for us. Yes, his disinterested love (Caritas) is showered on all of us, but in his desire for unity with us, he is supremely interested in each of us as persons. His love for me, for you, for each of us as a person is not disinterested at all. It is Amor.

Now, compare this desire to the Holy Spirit:

The Holy Spirit – God’s gift

733 “God is Love” (caritas) and love (caritas) is his first gift, containing all others. “God’s love (caritas) has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.”

734 Because we are dead or at least wounded through sin, the first effect of the gift of love (caritatis) is the forgiveness of our sins. The communion of the Holy Spirit in the Church restores to the baptized the divine likeness lost through sin.

735 He, then, gives us the “pledge” or “first fruits” of our inheritance: the very life of the Holy Trinity, which is to love (diligere) as “God [has] loved (dilexit) us.” This love (the “charity” of 1 Cor 13) “Hic amor (caritas de qua 1 Cor 13)” is the source of the new life in Christ, made possible because we have received “power” from the Holy Spirit.

736 By this power of the Spirit, God’s children can bear much fruit. He who has grafted us onto the true vine will make us bear “the fruit of the Spirit: . . . love (caritas), joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.” “We live by the Spirit”; the more we renounce ourselves, the more we “walk by the Spirit.”

About 6 months after I first came to St Dominic’s the parish hosted a Called and Gifted workshop part of which is a sort of “theological MBTI” to determine what charisms one has. Those who know the writer’s history may be surprised to learn that the highest-scoring charism was celibacy (tied with writing and teaching). Then followed long conversations with my spiritual director and with the priest who gave the workshop (who later became my new director). What I took away from those meetings was that the evil one often uses our gifts to trip us up and that where there is the greatest gifts there can be the greatest fall. And then – “but what are you going to do about it now?”

What now?

When I was in the Eastern Orthodox Church (OCA) I found comfort in the following teaching document:

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.

Synodal Affirmations on Marriage, Family, Sexuality, and the Sanctity of Life

As an aside, it was that counsel to “seek assistance” that led me to join Courage and – eventually – the Roman Catholic Church. It is to be noted, though, that it’s only described as feelings – and love is not a feeling. Love is an act of the will. So one can act-of-the-will (dare I say “choose”) to do something else.

All of these things struck me this morning listening to “Constant Craving”, to return to the top of this post. “A great magnet pulls / All souls to what’s true.” What is true, of course, is God. What is true is Love. But that love (caritas) is expressed to each of us personally as desire – our ascending desire for God and his descending desire for each of us personally. Benedict XVI follows the Church Fathers in using Jacob’s ladder as a typological sign of this. We might also see Dante’s final vision of all the saints in glory flying around God.

Now, what to desire? Dante points us in the right direction: all desire, all constant craving, is for the Good. It is impossible to love evil for evil’s sake – we only mistake something for Good. We love the Good… and sometimes we are led astray by lesser Goods. But even they can lead us to the Highest Good.

So it is that when we find ourselves pulled towards the Truth as if by a great magnet we might be redirected, but we will turn, eventually, towards the source of our greatest happiness, indeed the fulfillment of our greatest desire. Once we achieve that happiness – that fullest vision – we will not turn away. Thomas says “man is not perfectly happy, so long as something remains for him to desire and seek” (2nd Part, Part 1, Q 3, Article 8, Answer.) We won’t back down from the greatest happiness… but on the way there we can be misled.

And so, this morning, it dawned gradually that being misled in Eros is only fixed by crucifixion, by cruciformity: to be crucified with Christ is to properly order one’s desires to God. Our desire – ascending to him – is, itself, an answer to God’s desire not for “us” in general, but in the first person: God’s desire for one’s own uniqueness, meness.

God loves in the first person.

In the Glory of the Cross

JMJ

FROM the Office of Readings for the Blessed Virgin Mary on Saturday:

The cross is our trophy raised against the demons, our sword against sin and the sword Christ used to pierce the serpent. The cross is the Father’s will, the glory of the only-begotten, the joy of the Spirit, the pride of the angels, the guarantee of the Church, Paul’s boast, the bulwark of the saints, and the light of the entire world.
– St John Chrysostom

It’s not only Jesus’ cross of which he speaks! Each of us have a cross to bear, our trophy against demons, our sword against sin. It is the Sword (of our lives) that Christ uses to pierce the serpent.

This Cross – which is pain and sorrow for us, which is different for each of us, which may be a “thorn in the flesh”, an addiction to sin, a sexual temptation, or a disordered affection, or a disease – this cross is the Father’s will, the glory of Christ, the joy of the Spirit, the pride of the Angels, the guarantee of the Church, our own boast, the bulwark of the saints, and the light of the entire world… if we but let God use it as he would.

Sorrowful Mysteries of Virtue

JMJ

DURING THE SPIRITUAL STRUGGLE (ascesis, podvig, jihad) to acquire the virtues there are three opponents that must be defeated: the world, the flesh, and the devil. In the course of this battle, the self is also conquered, but it cannot be so until the other three are defeated. Of course none of these can be defeated without the help of the graces offered by Our Lord in his Church and through the intercession of our brothers and sisters, especially the saints – especially the All Holy Theotokos and Blessed Virgin, Mary. Our Lady has offered many weapons to her knights in this crusade, most especially the Rosary. By way of meditation, here are the Sorrowful Mysteries considered as part of this battle.

This comes as a meditation and prayer for those who are working in the Courage Apostolate, but it may be of use for others.

I

In the Garden we struggle to understand what is happening. In the Dark Night we have to discern the three enemies and beg God’s grace to fight them. The death of what we think or imagine to be ourself is upon us. We must learn to see the false self, also, as an enemy. In fact we are called to slay this shadow before we can even offer our own gifts upon the altar. This will be the first (but not final) sacrifice. We must ask for courage, yes, and we must also accept the humility of obedience. Not my will, but thine be done.

II

At the pillar we face the Devil: who presents us with our own desires, memories, cravings. By the impiety of our straying he has power over us. As the Book of Common Prayer puts it: …we have erred, and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep. We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts. We have offended against thy holy laws. We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; and we have done those things which we ought not to have done; and there is no health in us. But thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us, miserable offenders. In the course of all that we have have seared our conscience and can only hear the whisperings of evil. All that we thought (previously) as “good” we must discard. What we face is the lashings of our addictions, the chemical imbalances we have created in our own brains by our actions. Eventually, as mentioned, we realize this means even our own ideas of who we are and what we have become. We must let these false goods die so that the real good may rise.

Of course the three things against which we struggle are never present alone. If one is there the other two are near. If one feels strongest the other two are just waiting to tag in. And so the world and the flesh are here as well. For what we have learned is engraved in our flesh and what we have learned we have learned from the world.

III

Under the Crown of Thorns we face the World and most especially we face the mockery of the world. In some cases we may be blessed to suffer actual persecution, but mostly mockery. We may suffer the relatively gentle mockery of allurements, or the fierce mockery of former compatriots in our sins. We may find our brows bleeding from the smiting of coworkers who reject us. We may feel the spittle of angry political opponents.

Most especially, we may find our hearts wounded by fellow Catholics who, rejecting Church teaching, try to lead us astray. We must offer this mystery especially for these who often defend our sins as cover for theirs or, perhaps, they feel they are doing a favor by “speaking out” when they are only speaking the voice of the World and not the Church and the heart of Christ bleeds for them too.

The devil tempts us all in our weakness and our flesh more but increasingly less willingly caves in. We find ourselves continually trapped in a three-way battle over ourselves.

IV

At the last carrying the cross we face the Flesh but always, really, we fight on all three fronts continually. Here, at last, though the victory is won in patience. We must learn to only keep going, to only just carry on. Here, no fall is too great as long as we only get up again and keep on keeping on. The flesh becomes stronger in virtue as its vices are weakened. Here each time we lift the cross again, it rises easier and easier. Yes, we must still die on it, yes that final sacrifice is coming, but here we are being prepared to make that offering.

The devil calls us back to our flesh. The world says Don’t leave me. Schylla and Charibdis seek to destroy us, but only keep on, one foot in front of the other. In the end the victory is death. But it is glorious.

V

The triumph is the Crucifixion. We have finally destroyed all our false selves. Now, at last, we can be crucified. For to crucify something false is to offer strange fire. Here at last is the final victory over the world, the flesh, and the devil. Death removes us from their power struggle. Death also opens us to God. Every little death is a prefiguring of this final sacrifice. Every little death takes us farther from them until at last we can be entirely God’s own. It is possible in life even for if you die before you die then when you die you will not die. But for most this death continues after death until, at last purged of all death, we can live, finally.

Disorder as Liberation

JMJ

ONE YEAR IN HIGH SCHOOL our Marching Band raised money by working at Six Flags in Atlanta. I’m unclear how it worked, but basically, we performed various minimum-wage jobs around the park for one of three half-day shifts and all the money went to the band. In exchange for working 4 hours, the “volunteers” got to spend the whole day in the park. It was a fun day (although I will never eat park food ever again) and I got to ride the Mind Bender 15 times.

The Mind Bender opened that summer and was billed as the world’s first triple loop roller coaster and I had no reason to want to do any of the normal stuff which I’d done before. This was not only new to me but new to everyone! Until the pre-monastery purge, I still had the commemorative coin they gave out that year. Anyway, that day I rode the thing until I got bored, literally. After 12 times through (in fairly rapid succession, since I had an employee pass and needn’t stand in the whole line), I couldn’t have cared less: all my adrenaline burned out, the endorphins went away, and all I had was a jolting and jerking sensation caused by the motion. I was numb. Still, I rode it three more times, then I stopped.

I was talking to my brother in Christ yesterday over wings and biscuits; there was some beer as well. We were talking about how moral theology has basically two categories: the way God intended something to be (aka properly ordered) and every other way we try things, (aka disordered). It’s important to realize that moral theology doesn’t use “disordered” as we might when describing a mental disease. It’s more along the lines of putting a penny in a fuse (if you are old enough to get the reference), or what happens when you use a flat head screwdriver that is also too small on a Phillips-head screw.

Since the human spirit is made to follow God’s will – and yet we do not – we are disordered. All of Creation groans under the situation caused by our fall: man was intended to be the crown of creation, the Primus below God. Disorder is a sign of the fall. To find one’s life is disordered is to admit that one is human – no less than any other. Given what we know about the human propensity to sin, as my friend said, even ketchup packets are a sign of the Fall. That we have fallen from grace disorders all things.

The Jesus Psalter, a 16th Century English Catholic devotion closes with two prayers referring to the disorder of our dance: Jesus, grant me grace to set my mind on thee; and, Jesus, grant me grace to order my life to thee. Both of these, our minds and our lives, are to be ordered – focused, line up behind, pointing at Jesus. When we say something is disordered we mean it’s pointing the wrong way. That “wrong way” may only be a fraction of a degree off course, but in the distance of Eternity, that fraction grows until we miss the mark. Please note: disorder, itself, is not missing the mark. We miss the mark when we deny the disorder, when we treat SNAFU as “right”.

Imagine that you have a square peg – and you have to fit it in the proverbial round hole. Imagine you spend your whole life shoving and pounding, chipping off corners, trying to stretch the hole, all in vain. In the end, you give up: you settle down, the hole unpegged, the peg without a home. What if someone came by and said, “I have a square hole over here…” It would finally feel as though you’d found a home. You’ve finally connected. Only connect, as E.M. Forster sys in Maurice, it’s the solution to the isolation that cuts us off.

In talking about human sexual expression, “disordered” as category applies to everything outside of the procreative act within sacramental marriage. Anything else is using tools given by God in ways not intended. The Church’s tradition, beginning in scripture and unfolding in the lives of the saints, is pretty clear about this. There are degrees of departure from plumb, but all such – even by half a degree – proceed from a fall and miss the mark entirely.

My friend asked me how I – a Catholic man who experiences sexual attraction to other men – felt about that label “disordered”. I did not think twice before I said, “Liberating!”

All of our modern world is about catering to our whims, our desires. Everything we do is “because we want too/feel the need to/crave…” It’s bloody exhausting! To “follow my bliss” when what I want to bliss out on changes from moment to moment is like trying to navigate with a compass through a maze made out of magnets. We are told that we must consume, that we must get our just desserts, that we deserve more than we have, that when we die we should leave a proper viking horde of stuff and experience behind to prove that we were here at all: when the sex and the shopping stops, we’re dead.

Worse, we become so involved in this that we don’t even notice when we continue the pattern in strange parts of our lives. Amazon – mistress of all the vices – feels better than therapy. Online dating is only a 70s Singles Bar or Bathhouse that needs no brick and mortar expenses. Church shopping and parish hopping is just the Tinder or Growlr app, but with God. We choose our name, religion, job, residence, friends, medications, and whatever all based on only our drives and tastes; only in hindsight do we realize that “drive” and “taste” are more matters of “peer pressure” and “marketing”. “My” taste is not personal to me. I can walk out of the house in purple sneakers and yellow socks firm in the knowledge that there’s probably another 100k or so people dressed exactly the same way within 500 miles.

Disorder is a way out! To realize that this is not at all how it has to be, or even how it’s supposed to be; to realize that this chaos is not what is intended, that this chaos is self-replicating, that only a re-ordering from outside will fix it is to be graciously liberated from the ever-spinning wheel of illusion.

Living a life fulfilling every desire, every whim, running away from every pain and every sorrow, is like trying to dig one’s way out of a pit: each fulfillment gives rise to more craving – even if only for a repeat performance. Mmmm that felt good. Do it again! Like my ride on the Mind Bender, we do it over and over until all the chemicals in our brain burn out. Then we just keep going on some autopilot function. Our cravings have turned into an addiction, our lives into empty recreations of patterns we claim to enjoy. But we are not free: we are enslaved to our reasons, our cravings.

No! You don’t have to fulfill that whim, that craving, that lust! Let it go: if you hold on it will only take you further and further off course. Simply: Let. It. Go.

Disorder, as self-realization, is discovering the square hole for the square peg. It’s realizing that one is human: not special, but average; not unique but a son of Adam, a daughter of Eve. There is nothing unique or special about your desires: they are shared by millions of others in history. There are only differences of response. Desires, as such, are only a sign of being part of our fallen humanity. They are not needs to fulfill, but rather comments on or signs of our human weakness. Disorder – experienced as an action or only as desire – is a sign that we need God. Knowing that it is disorder, something that needs to be reordered, to be fixed, turns it into an on-going opportunity for grace to be poured in. And the Church is both the fountain from which grace is poured and the vessel that contains us as we are filled with that gift.

In riding the Mind Bender, I not only got bored, I also kinda ended my fear-love relationship with Roller Coasters. I don’t really like the adrenalin rush that one gets. It’s not at all heathy to trigger one’s own fear mechanism. I feel the same way about horror movies too. Like, I have only so many “Endo-Dolphins” as a friend’s daughter once called them. I don’t want to waste them by crying wolf too many times. Using the endorphins this way – a hit of adrenalin, a rush of fear – is disordered in a minor way, just as a hit of poppers, a rush of sweaty fun – is disordered in a major way. But we live in a society that says “fulfill it!” at every turn. That’s not what we are here for. In fact, we’re here for the opposite. And when you grow tired of jamming the square peg into all the wrong holes, you can finally settle down and let the proper ordering of things take over. The Church is the school that not only teaches that solution, but resolves the conflict, and heals the resultant pains.

Recognizing Disorder and yielding to grace are, in fact, the first three of the 12 steps:

  1. We admitted we were powerless over Fill In the Blank —that our lives had become unmanageable. 
  2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity. 
  3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him. 

St Paul says, in Galatians, “Christo confixus sum cruci. Vivo autem, jam non ego: vivit vero in me Christus.” With Christ I am nailed to the cross. And I live, now not I; but Christ liveth in me. Our cravings produce a false sense of need and that need/craving produces a false self. This is not me. I am not my cravings. I am not personified by my temptations. We crucify our fallen self, as Jesus gave himself up for us so that we can finally live – yet not us, but Christ living in us. Grace (which is God’s energy, God’s presence in our lives) orders our life to Christ. We can only get there when we see everything is not good as it is. We are liberated by seeing the disordered lives we lead, the disordered world in which we live for exactly what it all is: Disordered.

Fractal Structures of Hell

JMJ

1865 Sin creates a proclivity to sin; it engenders vice by repetition of the same acts. This results in perverse inclinations which cloud conscience and corrupt the concrete judgment of good and evil. Thus sin tends to reproduce itself and reinforce itself, but it cannot destroy the moral sense at its root.

Peccatum exercitationem constituit ad peccatum; per eorumdem actuum repetitionem vitium generat.

IF YOU’RE NOT LISTENING TO THE Every Knee Shall Bow podcast you should be. Right now they are in the middle of a series on the struggle against habitual sins that is astounding. (Like: you walk down the road with your headphones on and Gomer says something and you are catapulted into the heavenly contemplation and you’re crying because God’s grace is so amazing.) In the most recent episode, I was struck as Gomer discussed something that will be familiar to my Orthodox and Eastern Catholic readers: sin is not only a discreet action. Rather, sin is a web of antecedents, a cultural context, of personal weaknesses and history, and – yes – discreet actions as well. Sin is a violation of our relationship with God. More than that, as mentioned in Paragraph 1865 of the Catechism, Sin leads to sin. Sin clouds the mind and corrupts our conscience. The more habitual a sin is the more habitual sin becomes. As was said on the podcast a trillion venial sins are not “worth” one mortal sin, but sin leads to sin: and a venial sin is a pathway to damnation.

If we think in terms only of discrete actions then our confession becomes just a laundry list where we have no self-awareness. Where we are not aware of why we sin, of when a sin began, of which actions first launched us into sin. If we are to root out sin entirely, we need to be aware of when the relationship with God started to go wrong.

And so back to Paragraph 1865.

Sin creates a proclivity to sin; it becomes easier to sin. As Saint Paul says our conscience becomes seared as with a hot iron. We no longer see something is bad. We just do it. When we first began to sin we might have been aware that we were committing a bad action. But the more we do it the easier it becomes to do it. And not only our current sin other sins as well. Our chosen sin becomes a gateway to other actions: we need a bigger hit, a stronger dose to feel like we’ve done something. It engenders vice by repetition of the same acts.

This results in perverse inclinations which cloud conscience and corrupt the concrete judgment of good and evil. We no longer think in terms of identifiable Good and Evil. Suddenly, since we’ve already discarded one moral law on the basis of feeling good, we find it easier to discard others for the same reason. Our conscience ceases to function not only along the lines of our chosen sin, rather it ceases to function at all. We have successfully silenced it – seemingly – or rather we have successfully stuffed enough cotton in our ears to ignore it.

Thus sin tends to reproduce itself and reinforce itself, but it cannot destroy the moral sense at its root.

This is where it’s important to realize that “a sin” is not a discrete act but rather part of a web, as Gomer said, or a fractal pattern. All sin is a manifestation of the same destruction of the relationship we have with God. Sometimes the destruction is only partial and sometimes it is total. Sometimes it’s only a minor rip in the fabric and sometimes it’s a case of “burn it all down”. Yet, all sin is a fractal of itself: all sin is an action of pride. The fruit was looked good to eat and she took and ate it. That’s all we do, over and over again.

Read the rest of the Catechism’s Part III Section 1 Chapter I Article 8.V. on the proliferation of sin. After detailing a list of capital sins and ways in which we can participate in another’s sin, it says, citing St John Paul, (in ⁋1869) Thus sin makes men accomplices of one another and causes concupiscence, violence, and injustice to reign among them. Sins give rise to social situations and institutions that are contrary to the divine goodness. “Structures of sin” are the expression and effect of personal sins. They lead their victims to do evil in their turn. In an analogous sense, they constitute a “social sin.” If we let sin have its way, soon it creates a rut, if you will, that we just follow: this is the way it’s always been. Like an addict, we just go along without questioning what (now) seems perfectly normal. We are sinning not because we are tempted, not because we make a choice, but because this is what we do. The conception of another way to act is entirely lost. We might even convince ourselves that we “are” this thing that we’re trapped in.

The Catechism clearly says there are structures of sin, there is social sin: there would have to be. We are not individuals, rather we are persons. Persons only exist in communion. The communion is not broken: it sours and the infection spreads.