Day 75. What Has Been Learned?

JMJ

Very early in this I learned that I can go quite a long time on autopilot without realizing this is not “the new normal” but rather this is the rut I let myself make and it’s only that I’m calling it the New Normal. For a while my two emotions were fear and snark. Sometimes, all up in there, God would manage to punch through with some emotions, like during the Papal Holy Hour. I wept like Tammy Faye in uncontrolled sobs. But mostly I was running on fear and snark. That was not the new normal: that was the rut.

For a while, my entire life was from the apartment, to Grace Cathedral’s Labyrinth, to Nob Hill Market, to back home.

If you had told me in February how important this would become to me, I would have laughed.

Labyrinths are curious. Why bother: it’s a walk in circles. But it forces you to watch your feet, to look down, to not be distracted. It’s perfect for praying a rosary or the Jesus Psalter. It’s a place for zoning out: in broad daylight, people will watch you like you’re a TV show. They will talk to you when you’re done as if you’re a TV star. Then they go on with their day. The first time I looked into the center and saw death, I cried. I’ve since become friends with her by walking into her at least once every other day or so. And praying.

The Market was another trip: do you remember the time before we washed groceries? Then they stopped taking cash. I learned how to make sourdough bread with a half teaspoon of commercial yeast that I’m still using to make things. It bubbles up nicely when I need it to.

Alone on the streets of SF before sunrise.

But there’s also been a slow, painful learning process.

First: I was taking mass for granted. It was a badge of honor that I was going to daily mass – not a daily coming into deeper relationship with God. This was something I did… a box to check off. Not a desire from my heart. Now that I cannot go (or rather, that I can only go on-screen) I’ve learned that you should only eat when you’re hungry.

Second: I’m really afraid of prayer. God teaches us a vocabulary. God gets us going… and then God rocks it. This thing happens when God reaches in and takes over. Grace works your prayer life like this scene from Close Encounters of the Third Kind (EMI 1977):

We are taking over this conversation… now.

But that’s terrifying. While there are few things as glorious, it’s also one thing as terrfying… even the prophets ran away from it. In a deep relationship of love, why do we hurt each other so? My child you cannot hurt me, but you are wounded by Love because you do not trust me. Light can only hurt if your eyes are not strong enough. But I can heal your eyes: and your heart. Only trust.

Third. We asked God to purify His Church but we didn’t really mean it. This is like the item above on prayer: When God has something to do, he does it. I’ve come to believe that’s what’s happening now. God is fixing things, refocusing things, getting things lined up for a future that may even be worse. These words from 1969 are familiar to some:

From the crisis of today the Church of tomorrow will emerge—a Church that has lost much. She will become small and will have to start afresh more or less from the beginning. She will no longer be able to inhabit many of the edifices she built in prosperity. As the number of her adherents diminishes, so she will lose many of her social privileges. In contrast to an earlier age, it will be seen much more like a voluntary society, entered only by free decision. As a small society, it will make much bigger demands on the initiative of her individual members. Undoubtedly it will discover new forms of ministry and will ordain to the priesthood approved Christians who pursue some profession. In many smaller congregations or in self-contained social groups, pastoral care will normally be provided in this fashion. Along-side this, the full-time ministry of the priesthood will be indispensable as formerly. But in all of the changes at which one might guess, the Church will find her essence afresh and with full conviction in that which was always at her center: faith in the triune God, in Jesus Christ, the Son of God made man, in the presence of the Spirit until the end of the world.

In faith and prayer she will again recognize the sacraments as the worship of God and not as a subject for liturgical scholarship. The Church will be a more spiritual Church, not presuming upon a political mandate, flirting as little with the Left as with the Right. It will be hard going for the Church, for the process of crystallization and clarification will cost her much valuable energy. It will make her poor and cause her to become the Church of the meek. The process will be all the more arduous, for sectarian narrow-mindedness as well as pompous self-will have to be shed. One may predict that all of this will take time. The process will be long and wearisome as was the road from the false progressivism on the eve of the French Revolution—when a bishop might be thought smart if he made fun of dogmas and even insinuated that the existence of God was by no means certain—to the renewal of the nineteenth century.

Father Joseph Ratzinger (as he then was) speaking on German Radio

But in the midst of the process it that really sucks, you know? We don’t like it. Worse some of us actually decided – after yelling and screaming about purifying the Church – that we needed to tell God where to get off – especially if he wanted to take out some other things in the process, like ‘Muruka.

Fourth, now that I can’t run away, I’ve realized that all the running away I did in the past was a form of suicide. I would reach a point of disconnect, or dislike, find myself trapped in some way or another, and then I would just go: dropping friends, religions, jobs, lovers, whatever… and reinvent myself. Except the self I’d reinvent was often someone else: a new name, a new religion, a new backstory. The old one was killed.

That’s… not a healthy thing. Not at all. And I’m only learning that now because I can’t escape. Where could I go that’s not here? Or like here? So now I just get out and walk 15 miles. In the past I would drive 400 miles, sleeping in the car, and figure out something to do before coming back (if I came back).

Fifth, American healthcare sucks, and we’ve now shown that to the world. Literally everyone knew this, but no one laughs at the bully until it’s safe to do so. Now it’s safe and we’ve made it clear: millions of people lost healthcare in this crisis, but only in America. Only because their bosses – on whom they depend for health care – were too stingy to care for their workers in times of loss. We need a nationalized – socialized – healthcare system now: from the local pharmacy and privatized “Urgent Care” clinics to the big HMOs and the Pharmaceutical companies. They all need to be torn down, nationalized, and purged. But we will not get it. The next crisis will be worse.

Before this all started in the States, one priest on FB was convinced that the only reason Italy was suffering was because – unlike America – Italy had very few hospital beds to care for the ill. Mostly because of Europe’s socialized Health Care. He didn’t care that per-capita number proved that Italy had more beds than America, or that even our medical experts were saying we didn’t have enough beds. That level of denial is common in America: we know we’re the best so if something bad happens it must be someone else’s fault.

That was before NYC started to bring in refrigerator trucks to hold the dead bodies that they had no other room for. That was before:

The population of China is 1.435 Billion people. They’ve had 4,634 deaths.
The population of the USA is 328.2 Million people. We’ve had 97,647 deaths.
How did we get ~24 times more deaths despite having only a 5th as many people?
We’re NUMBER ONE! USA! USA! USA! (Source).
There are other places with worse stats. We’re not the worst. I get that. But still.. we’re certainly not the best.

Sixth, the American Economy is dysfunctional AF. The cries of “only old people need to stay home”, “let’s risk the deaths…”, “keep our cities open!” and “Meat slaughtering is essential work – even if workers are dying” are, as one person on twitter put it, a sign that America, confronted with the classic Trolley problem elected to save the streetcar named capitalism at all costs. Sorry, wrong answer.

Finally, we really live in a banana republic.

In economics, a banana republic is a country with an economy of state capitalism, whereby the country is operated as a private commercial enterprise for the exclusive profit of the ruling class. Such exploitation is enabled by collusion between the state and favored economic monopolies, in which the profit, derived from the private exploitation of public lands, as private property, while the debts incurred thereby are the financial responsibility of the public treasury. Such an imbalanced economy remains limited by the uneven economic development of town and country, and usually reduces the national currency into devalued banknotes (paper money), rendering the country ineligible for international development credit.

Remember, civilized countries did far more than just give out $1k checks so that people could shop some more – to prop up the economy. All the Feds did was give us more money (as individuals) to give to Jeff Bezos (and some others). And while millions of us sat home unemployed, the stock market had one of its best months ever. That’s where we live. If the Caldera in Yellowstone blew up – because, you know, 2020 – the main loss would be elk, bears, and Old Faithful.

Trumpovationism

The Destruction of Christ the Savior Cathedral in Moscow. 5 December 1931.

JMJ

After the martyrdom of the Czar and his family, the Orthodox Church in what was becoming the Soviet Union wrestled for a while with various ideas about what was needed. In the Byzantine idea of polity, the Church and the State had always worked “in symphony” even though the idea usually manifested as State Control of the Church in reality: what the west called “Caesaropapism”. In Russia this played out as an ongoing power struggle between the Czar and the Patriarch of the Russian Church. In fact, Czar Peter forbade the election of any new Patriarch in 1700 and the Russian Church let that happen. So there was no Patriarch until the Bolsheviks killed Czar St Nicholas II in 1917 and let the Russian Church have a Patriarch again.

That’s where this story gets really odd. If the state can prevent your leadership from electing a Chief Bishop – and then, turn around and grant you permission to do so again 200 years later – how beholden to the state are you? Both the Church and the Russian State – Czarist and then Soviet – thought the answer was “Greatly Beholden”. So, in the 1920s and 30s, when Orthodox Clergy wanted to bring the Church more-closely into alignment with Soviet ideology, the Soviets encouraged this…

Not because Soviets thought that the proper manifestation of Christian Social Teaching was socialist; not because they thought that Marx had finally understood Christ more perfectly. Rather the Soviet Support for what was called “The Living Church” (Живая Церковь Zhivaya Tserkov) was to encourage a schism in the Church – in order to weaken the Church entirely. After a while, it was common for Soviet agents to influence internal Church politics by seeming to take “liberal” Church positions against the “conservatives” in the Church: things like allowing monastics to marry without giving up their church titles, or allowing Bishops to get married. Today they would have been pushing new definitions or marriage and sex or liberalized abortion laws. This was a political choice and not a theological one. When it became necessary to fight the Nazis, Joseph Stalin jumped theological tracks and began supporting the conservative majority in the Church to get them all fighting with him (and Churchill, etc) against Hitler. Later, again making a political choice, Stalin and his successors would persecute (or partially liberate) the Church in order to gain some political stepping stone.

This history is presented because America seems to be in a Trumpian Renovation period right now.

Entirely for his own political power (not for any theological position) the President has taken religious talking points. In that it results in some sort of political change in favor of Church teachings, I don’t think that’s bad, per se. But the overall effect is to lure a certain class of clergy and faithful into thinking they have to support the President no matter what. These are like the minority of Orthodox in Russia today seeking to make Stalin a saint. They remember the Great Leader’s overtures to the Church and so the Bad Things he did must be ignored. Our President has this same class of supporters in the Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant communities of America.

So I think it’s interesting that right now there is a fight between governors and the president over opening Churches. I remark that it’s interesting… but I don’t trust or agree with either side. While I can agree that many “liberal” politicians would rather the Church go away, the reality is the “conservatives” would drop us like a hot potato if they thought they could get more votes by doing so. We already see this in the area of abortion where Republicans are quick to talk, but slow to act and even many a Catholic Politician refuses to vote (as a matter of course) in keeping with the Church’s position. No, if they could get more votes and stay in power by doing so, they blow up Churches just like Stalin did and give their people swimming pools.

The real issue about opening the churches: If gov’ts allow houses of faith to be open for the spiritual wellbeing of their people it is a tacit admission that religion is a communal, not private affair. It follows that religion is a part of – with effect in – the public sphere. This is contrary to the entire enlightenment project and contrary to the stream of secular, atheistic culture. Religion is ok at home. Not in public.

Neither Trump nor the Democrats can allow for that save that it supports their political ends. Trumps was conservatives who think they have to vote for him because of abortion… while ignoring literally everything else about him as a person and the economic choices he makes. Democrats what liberals who think they have to vote for Biden (or Clinton, or Obama, or whomever) simply for the sake of healthcare or welfare, ignoring abortion and every other moral issue that comes up. At present, both sides are using the medical emergency and taxes to whip up support.

Contrary to any “Politicopapism”, the Church offers the Social Kingship of Christ: which requires the state to move her people towards salvation… or get out of the way while the Church does her job. So it is possible to see that a given politician’s support for something is a cynical ploy to get votes and yet, realistically to give that politician our vote now – knowing that next election we may have to get rid of him. It is possible to see that healthcare for all and a social safety net are part of the requirements of Catholic Teaching while realizing that abortion must be stopped and cannot ever – even momentarily – be considered “healthcare”. Siding with one politician over another will only lead to a schism in the Church, to participation in the Enlightenment project of weakening the Church.

Our current culture drives us apart, to consider “my needs” over and above anything else. Catholic Social Teach is exactly social and requires a community. It takes a village, actually, to live the faith. If we allow the politicians to destroy our social fabric in a Stalinesque move simply to divide and conquer, (if, God forbid, we should participate in it) we are following them – not Christ. We are seeing the new Living Church, and we are bound for death.

1997: Like PrEP but Covid

JMJ

Continuing the series of posts comparing this current situation to the AIDS crisis in the 80s, after 1985 and 1987 it seems good to skip a bit of time, to 1997 and today. The parallels continue to hold.

In conversation, recently, a friend and I were discussing the huge change that came over the Gay community in response to AIDS. Evidently this storyline is part of the “Television Version” and has some traction even outside the community. This story looks like this: in response to the health situation, the cities and states closed sex clubs and bathhouses and, as people started getting sick and then dying, the culture changed. Instead of focusing on sex, monogamous relationships became the pattern. Advocates for marriage took over the podium at events and in the public eye. Books like Virtually Normal came out. There was a lot of pushback against folks who were engaged in unsafe sex. There was widespread approval of the cities (and states) who closed the outlets for anonymous sex.

In this same time period, however, something else happened: in NYC was founded a group called Sex Panic! to demand something rather different: a return to the way it was before. They wanted to affirm all the previous expressions of sexuality that were common in the community and they wanted the freedom to return to them. This was the beginning of the mass popularity of such phrases as “sex-positive” and “polyamory”. Both had been around before, but they were not in the shared experience or vocabulary of a lot of folks in the community. As they became more popular in the community, they also gained traction in the wider population.

These two things – “Settle Down” and “Sex Panic!” – happening at the same time created a culture that wanted marriage – but also wanted to be able to have open marriages. However, AIDS was still a thing. Enter PrEP.

PrEP stands for pre-exposure prophylaxis (the taking of a prescription drug as a means of preventing HIV infection in an HIV-negative person). It means exactly that: a person who takes HIV medication on a daily basis in order to not-get HIV while they engage in sexual behavior that has varying degrees of risk. It’s not exactly a vaccine against catching HIV, but it’s basically the same thing: if there are enough of the drugs in your system, if you are exposed to HIV, you are safe. The drugs prevent the virus from gaining traction in your system. Coincidently, the same drugs seem to also have an effect in the battles against Covid-19. They are studying this now.

After all the cultural parallels noted between HIV and Covid, would it not be very rich if the solution were found in the same drugs?

Where we stand just now, as some things open, some states and cities open, is at the same cusp. We don’t have a vaccine, though. So lives are still at risk. But If we let the Sex Panic! side win, we’ll be right back where we started. The “Settle Down” side can’t win either: our culture needs to change, we cannot settle into working from home and letting the homeless die on our streets from a disease we kept outside.

Mind you, “herd immunity” is not the right answer since we don’t know what immunity looks like for this virus. For example: testing positive for the antibodies our bodies make to fight HIV means you already have it… not that you’ve fought it off. Untreated you will die. Is Covid that way? We don’t know. If you have it once, can you get it again? We think not… but are there different strains? If we’re immune to one, are we immune to the other(s)? Again, we don’t know.

But if we go into successive cycles of lockdowns, as seems possible, will there not be an economic collapse? I think so. Do we have a moral imperative to save lives – even poor, uncomfortable, jobless lives – over the economy.

Yes. YES AF. That’s the essential pro-life argument: a life is valuable, in God’s image, pro se – for itself. Economic conditions, etc do not overrule the value of that life, that icon of God.

But what we have learned, I hope, is we cannot go back to the way things were: our culture is sick. This virus is only a symptom. We need to fix wages, health care, politics, capitalism, trade…

This is not the time to settle down, either. This is the time to fight.

But in this time

JMJ

The Paschal Preface in the Roman Rite is only used from Easter to Ascension (or is it Pentecost? I don’t know). It’s present in the Novus Ordo nearly verbatim from the older order. Borrowing from Rome, the same text is also present in the 79 BCP for Episcopalians and in the People’s Anglican Missal for Anglo-Catholics of an older school. It’s a solid part of the Western Liturgical Tradition, both Roman and elsewhere.

It is truly right and just, our duty and our salvation, at all times to acclaim you, O Lord, but in this time above all to laud you yet more gloriously when Christ our Passover has been sacrificed. …Therefore, overcome with paschal joy, every land, every people exults in your praise and even the heavenly Powers, with the angelic hosts, sing together the unending hymn of your glory,as they acclaim:

Sitting at home earlier this week, livestreaming Mass, I heard that phrase again. And it struck me: …in this time above all… the phrase is there even in the Latin, …in hac potissimum… Even in this Covidtide above all. What does it mean to praise God in a time of plague?

Church history is filled with answers to this question. From the earliest Church that knew persecution in Rome, Africa, and Asia Minor, to the missionaries who brought the gospel and their own death to the farthest corners of the world. Through the Middle Ages where the Black Death rained on the church so hard that she changed the prayer called the Hail Mary, adding from then on the second half, “pray for us now and in the hour of our death” to the prayer. To the 80s where she ministered to those with AIDS the sick and the dying even when we didn’t know that touching people could not give you the disease. The church knows plague and the church knows how to praise God in these times.

Yet, to be honest, the church’s knowledge and her experience is not mine. I do not know how to do this. Do any of us know how to do this? How do we praise God in this time yet more gloriously? Looking back at blog posts before mid-March of this year is not a trip down memory lane, but rather trip in the TARDIS to some other part of the space-time continuum. Then something happened in the middle of that month and the tone changes. I confess I forgot how to praise God. Fear is a human emotion and it’s ok: even Jesus was afraid. But letting fear run your life is not: acting on fear is proof of a lack of trust in God. You cannot make prudent decisions if the only thing or the strongest thing is fear. Prudence requires faith. You can wear masks, socially distance, avoid public gatherings – even Mass, and stay safe out of fear. But it is better for you to do all of that out of prudence. You can also demand your freedom, breath on everyone, and march into state houses with guns. But that’s bravado: which is also fear. You would do none of those things out of prudence.

To be blunt: acting on even economic fear is evidence of a lack of trust in God. Acting on political fear is even greater proof of the same lack of faith. God and his Church have been victorious over several dictators, not by political action, but by grace, miracles, and prayer.

So. How to praise God in this time yet more gloriously? Can we be overcome with paschal joy and exult in God’s praise?

The clue is in that next line: overcome with paschal joy, every land, every people exults in your praise. The true joy of the Resurrection means that this life is not all, this world is not the end, or, as the preface for a requiem says, life is not ended, only changed. Paschal joy is unstoppable: not because it goes on after death but because death is no more.

In mid-March, death became very real. Not that anyone was dying around me – although I have no way of knowing until all the random phone calls and checkins stop, probably next year. But death was real: literally any one of us could have been dead in 14-21 days. It has taken most of April to weed out of my life the things that were fear-based instead of prudent. Washing hands is not fear based. Washing hands and wearing gloves and using sanitizer (maybe both before and after putting on the gloves, as one store made me do) is fear-based. That store now offers the choice (gloves or sanitizer): but for a week after shopping there I was terrified I was not doing enough. Even in normal times, some friends make folks take their shoes off before entering the apartment. Since there is no vestibule in this apartment, this is not a shared affectation. Until now. That started as fear-based, but it actually is prudent: I’ve noticed what tracks in on my shoes from The Streets of San Francisco and ewwwww.

So, how laud him yet more gloriously? How to praise him with great praise as Tolkien paraphrased on the Field of Cormallen, even – or especially – in this time?

He has shown us, people, what is good and what is required of us: do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God (Micha 6:8). I desire mercy and not sacrifice (Hosea 6:6). Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you (Matthew 5:44). Love one another as I have loved you: no one loves more than to lay his life down for his friends (John 15:12-13). This is how we might become even like Angels while on earth, who “excel in strength, that do his commandments, hearkening to the voice of his word” and are commanded to “praise the Lord” (Psalm 103:20).

This is our duty. No saint has ever signed a petition to “demand her rights” even to Sacraments. But almost all the saints have freely given up even their lives and their freedom to save others. No saint has ever unlawfully taken up arms to force others to change… in the name political Terrorism even cryptically named “Economic Liberty” whatever that is. But many a saint has laid down their lives to protect others from such terror. No saint has ever given up his trust in God out of fear of local gov’t’s or nameless, faceless, enemies to “take matters into his own hands.” These are the steps of those who are not praising God, but are only acting out of fear: not prudence.

Praise is an act of faith. An act of trust. And an act of humility. There is a reason the stereotypical image of “praise and worship” involves the exact same posture of those caught by the law. “Hands up” is an act of surrender. The surrender is required of those engaged in praise. It’s the definition, the physical and emotional reality, the sacrament of “walking humbly”. For Jesus it meant giving freely, being arrested in silence, bearing injustice, and death. That was his most-glorious praise of his Father. He did that not out of fear (even though he was afraid) but out of prudence and out of love.

What does our most-glorious praise look like?

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.)

NYC 1987: Mad as Hell

JMJ

This started with the idea that our current COVID crisis reminded me of the way we were dealing with AIDS in the 80s. In 1983 we were in denial in exactly the same way Americans were in early March 2020. In 1985 NYC was numb and scared. This time in 2020, it took America about two weeks to get here. The next stage is Anger. It took NYC two years to get to anger and, now, two weeks later in 2020 time, it’s 1987 all over again.

If you want to know the origins of our current idea of “political action” look to ACT-UP. It was founded in March of 1987, in the midst of the stunned silence created by the AIDS crisis. The essential attitude was “this is happening.” I admit the last thing I wanted to be reminded of (on most days) was AIDS. It was the silent elephant in the middle of every event, every party, every parade. But it was the last thing anyone wanted to do anything about, talk about, admit.

Although I had heard of ACT-UP already, my first exposure to them was when they disrupted a picnic. We had had a lovely political march up from Greenwich Village to Central Park for something or other. I seem to remember it was something to do with the UN. Anyway, we were all having a picnic in the big meadow in Central Park above Belvedere Castle. It was a nice afternoon when, through the trees on the western side of the park, came loud yelling and screaming. ACT-UP had gone up the West Side of the park, without a permit as was their wont, stopping traffic, getting arrested… and now had come bursting into our quiet event. And – to us, as it seemed at the time – acting out like petulant children. I and my friends – all NYU students – walked away. There were cops coming in, there was yelling and screaming.

For years after that event, I could not take ACT-UP seriously. We were doing the hard work – networking with politicians, civic leaders, etc. ACT-UP invaded St Patrick’s Cathedral and committed sacrilege. I got into a fight at NYU over that: I wasn’t even Catholic and I could see that was wrong. But petulant children always have parents that are spoiling them.

ACT-UP was driving social change – yes, sure. But they were doing it by using the tactics of bullies. And, point of fact, most of the things they were yelling about were not the real issue. 20 years later, we can see that some of their rallying points were – actually – not the right ones. Even John Cardinal O’Connor, whom they detested, was spending his night washing bedpans in AIDS hospices. But ACT-UP became the media’s accepted voice of gay politics in the same way that drag queens and leathermen were the media’s accepted image of gay pride parades. Ignoring thousands of women and men walking around in polo shirts, jeans, and comfortable shoes… it was the fringes that made the news. And, just as there were petition drives, phone trees, and even prayer vigils, it was the fringe that stopped traffic and chained themselves to traders on the stock market floor that made the news.

This is where we get politics today and is the real legacy of ACT-UP. This is the origin of that curious cross between Ghandi and Kent State that gives us shattered windows on main street in the name of peace. And it’s the source of streets filled with pink hats that do nothing more than fill streets with pink hats and feel smug about it. At one point, political action was seen as taking the high ground. MLK walking through the streets of and watching the walls of Jericho crumble in urban Alabama. ACT-UP taught us that taking the low ground got more press. And sometimes, that works. But it always made us feel good.

ACT-UP forced conversations that may sound familiar today: does someone die with AIDS or from complications arising from AIDS? How should we refer to AIDS patients? Can we refer to AIDS patients?

And, right on time two weeks after hitting the stunned silence of 1985, COVID has given us petulant children.

People are demanding we change the numbers because not everyone with. COVID is dying from COVID, as if mortality is that black and white. They are yammering about needing “herd immunity” when I don’t want to be exposed, do you? They demand we get to 15% exposure. (SF in lockdown, even so, seems to have gotten to 13% very easily.)

You know, we won’t know until 20 years from now how this new pack of petulant children has affected us. Will they commit sacrilege? They’ve been signing petitions for weeks demanding the bishops open up the churches again… will some flag waving harridan claiming to be an EM pry open the locked doors of a church and distribute communion in the hand to passers-by as an act of protest? Will a bunch of MAGA bros swarm out of the Marshal Vortext to bully bishops at the USCCB meeting or harass them online? We shall see.

We’re in the anger stage now. There’s no telling who will chain themselves to whom.

In two weeks it will be 1989. May 2020. What will happen then?

From the Seven Last Words

JMJ

This was a meditation was part of the Good Friday Seven Last Words at St Dominic’s Catholic Church in San Francisco. As a result of the current crisis, the meditations were recorded and posted on YouTube rather than preached from the pulpit. The video is shared at the end of this post.

I thirst.

Many of us as children have woken up at night and asked for a glass of water.

Maybe as a parent our child wakes up and asks: Mommy, can I have a glass of water? 

These words of our Lord, “I thirst” sound like that same cry. 

We wake at night, in the dark, alone, afraid: and we really want Mommy. But “I’m thirsty” is what we say: it makes sense, it’s the feeling we have… dry mouth… must be thirsty. But what causes it, in the middle of the night.

Is fear.

Just as if you were suddenly afraid for your life you would be suddenly dry mouthed. 

But no adult says, at that point, “Mommy, can I have some water?”

I thirst.

The eternal, Triune God, in the Second Person in Human Flesh, is crying out because of a dry mouth, part of the whole Flight or Fight thing that the same God built into us for our protection.

Here… it betrays him: it’s human weakness.

The God who made water. Who made mouths. Who made the nervous system. This God is afraid. This God is thirsty. This God… is about to die.

My heart breaks… this is love.

Was one of the first words ever taught to the Baby, the Word learning words, “yisemeh” – the Aramaic for “Thirsty”?  

His mother, standing there at the foot of the cross, hears her own baby again crying out “yisemeh”.  Can her heart not break remembering everything at that moment: from his first cry, to his first words, to the first time he woke up afraid, depicted in the icon of “Our Lady of Perpetual Help” where his sandal is flopping loose.

Eemma…Mommy… Yisemeh!

Brothers and Sisters. This is love.

In this time of danger.

In this time of death.

In this time of fear.

God knows… we are all thirsty. We cannot have the chalice. We cannot even come to mass. We cannot touch to hug, to hold or shake hands.

Some do this for safety, but we do not do this out of fear: rather it is out of love for our neighbor, for those who are weakest among us, for those who are most vulnerable.

Our priests, our Bishops, our Holy Father also feel this pain as they cannot do for us what they have been ordained and sacramentally ordered to do. 

Our hands are held back, our heart breaks, our love restrains us. Touch – when touch is most needed…

We thirst! We cry out to our mother, the Church who stands by watching and weeping for us.

Our God knows and understands: this is love.

In this time of danger.

In this time of death.

In this time of fear.

Christ our God has been here before us. Become of love, he has faced in mortal flesh, fear and death. 

And Jesus has the victory.

We thirst with him today…

He will make us victorious with him.

When or Because?

JMJ

Did you ever notice that we called these things stoplights even when they’re green? Did you ever wonder about that? We tend to see these things as a hindrance rather than a conveyance, or help. When I was at NYU my Religion Professor, Dr. James Carse asked us one night if we went when the light turned green or because the light turned green. 35 years later I still wonder about that. We call it a stoplight, even though it is green as often as it is red – and you can also go when it is yellow. The device actually says go a lot more than it says stop. Do you go when the light turns green or because the light turns green?

I think most Americans go when the light turns green. We wait until it says we can go safely without getting a ticket. Late at night, when there’s no one around, on a backcountry road we might go anyway, getting angry at who in tarnation but a stoplight way the heck out here. If we’re in a strange place we might not realize that intersection is considered the most dangerous in the county, 5 deaths last year alone, until a petition got a light there. So we wait, maybe, until the light changes or we zip through not realizing we are risking our lives or someone else’s life, coming the other direction.

I won’t create a strawman in this argument by projecting that in XYZ location they go because the light gives them permission. However, I admit I want to imagine that somewhere there is such a place. I imagine it’s this way most other places, to be honest, with the possible exception of Australia. I say that based on 25 years of customer service (including retail): I know that in America if I forget to charge you sales tax, you’ll be happy and walk away. But for 25 years, customers from almost all other places have all been some version of, “Wait, you’re supposed to charge me a tax on this purchase. I need to pay for roads and schools, healthcare and more with that tax. It’s my obligation to my community. Charge me that tax!” Americans don’t feel that way at all, even though we tend to pay only pennies on the dollar for each item (some countries charge upwards from 20% in sales tax). I want to imagine that these folks who demand the right to pay their sales tax also wait to go because the light has turned green.

You, dear reader, may have already begun to discern the difference. If a driver goes because the light has turned green, then he – the driver – is waiting for the state’s permission to go. The light says “go now” and the driver goes. The driver who goes when the light turns green was probably revving her engine as she saw the light from the other direction turn yellow. Must get away from these other cars. Come on light! Green! Throw it in gear and GO!

So, less a strawman than a projection, nevertheless, a projection I want to use for this post. I am sure that there are folks in both sorts of cultures who fit both of these profiles – who want to pay taxes and who don’t. I know they exist. And I think America has more of the when the light turns green sort of folks. It would make sense to be so as we are very individualistic here. The only question dividing the two American parties is really, “Which of my individual rights will the state let me force on you?” Their answers are not very different. Even our more liberal or lefty sorts tend to be focused on individual liberty rather than community rights. Laws, to these people, are a hindrance rather than a help. At best, the government does something that usually gets in the way. At worst the government stops something that an individual wants to do. There is a reason we call it a stoplight.

What does this mean for us in light of covid-19? I think it explains a lot. Although the Italian people were in the streets partying until about 2 and 1/2 weeks ago once they were put under lockdown they went willingly. They sing opera to each other from their balconies. They make YouTube videos of jets flying overhead blasting Pavarotti. They are in this together not as a bunch of individuals who happen to be together but rather as a culture and a community. When the government does something in Italy – if not in all of Europe – it is perceived as doing something to help. Perhaps it is too little, too late… but generally… let’s try this and see. Looking on YouTube for videos from Italy, what you hear on Twitter, and what you read on Facebook it’s a bunch of people grumbly but aware of their safety and the health of their society. They understand that while this is really annoying. It’s better than everyone dying. It is possible that even in highly secular Europe, this is a result of their Catholic upbringing.

There are other places where this is not the case. America is one of these places. Here when the government is doing something it’s getting in my way. Although from person to person the attitude may change slightly, generally the assumption is if the government’s trying to do something it’s probably wrong. I say this can change slightly from person to person because often times it’s a matter of well, if I happen to agree with it… And those shades of if I agree with it do, in fact, differ from person to person in America. So, for some voters anything the previous president did was right – or most anything – but anything the current president is wrong. For other voters, that’s exactly reversed. This is all a matter of personal opinion, of individual Choice: that’s the American way. This is our Protestant, “Jesus and Me, to hell with thee” roots.

For Catholic, ethics is about the common good: the individual participates society. The individual cannot be considered as a building block of society, but rather as a participant in society. There is no human-alone. Communion is what makes us who we are. The individual is not saved alone, and the individual has an obligation to the community around him. That obligation is not only for the community’s spiritual well-being which is their salvation. It is also for the community’s physical, secular well being as well. It is wrong for the individual to be greedy: but why? My greed is wrong because it robs from you. I have an obligation to see that you have your needs met. In Christian culture, everyone has an obligation to see that everyone’s needs are met. That includes salvation, don’t get me wrong. But it also includes housing, food, and health care. In other words, Christian Society relies upon – and assumes – Christian government. As we are a part of a society our collective action should be to force the government to do its job. That job is to secure the common good: both salvation and well-being. When the government fails to do its job individuals step in.

Yes, all Christians have the personal moral obligation to feed the poor and to clothe the naked. And to defend the health and safety of each other. The government – which is instituted by God – has these same obligations. God gives us our status as the divine image, the right to life, and the pursuit of happiness which means happiness in this world and in the next. This is not about material success, but real happiness. The state is established by God not to “give” us rights, but rather to defend and enforce those rights. These only exist in communion. I have no rights that trump you, as a person. My right to a job, to shopping, to free movement cannot trump your right to life.

I have described this as an American problem. We were not always that way: our American foundation documents, in fact, back me up. Just as the Catholic Church teaches that I owe you all because you are created in the image of God, our Declaration of Independence says that all are created equal and are endowed by their creator with specific rights. Our Constitution assures us that the duty of government is to provide for the common defense and to promote the general welfare’s advance. It’s only as we became modern that we forgot the meaning of endowed by their creator and promote the general welfare.

There are differing political and economic theories about how to accomplish the right way of right governing and economic justice. They come from both the left and the right. I have met Catholics who, individually, hold any one of these points on a spectrum. I am not aware that any one or the other actually is the Catholic position. I do know that the Catholic Church requires we promote the common good and that we weigh the common good above our individual liberties. We are obligated to live and enact justice as individuals. Equally, we are morally obligated to work towards a society and a government that does the same. We cannot, as Catholics, work for amoral governance that does not enforce God’s laws either in terms of actions or economics on the argument that I will be moral anyway. The government’s job is to enforce morality.

In the era of covid-19 this forbids me (and the. government) from acting in the name of “muh freedomz” when those freedoms can endanger others. I raise this because so many of us are treating these enclosures, shelter-in-place orders, and even lockdowns as “stoplights” rather than “traffic lights”. We are posting warnings about “martial law” and “communism” when what we should see is actions in defense of the individuals “endowed by their creator” with the first right listed being “life”. And since, properly, no gov’t can grant a right not granted prior by God (else it is only license, not liberty) then no gov’t can give us the right to endanger the lives of others. To the contrary, a Christian is obligated to support a Gov’t that seeks to take action to prevent us from doing so. No gov’t can use your income as an excuse to let other’s die and call itself Christian. No Christian gov’t can let economics hinder it from doing all things it can to protect its people.

Additionally, when all those actions have occurred, when my mobility is hindered, and when other right actions have resulted in the health of the populace, it is also the government’s responsibility to take economic steps to ensure the continuance of prosperity.

Regardless of what political form or economic theory you name this, it is Christian charity. It is acting because the government says we can, it is waiting until the government says we can go. It is giving up our freedom for the Salvation of those around us. In this we followed Jesus.

In short, covid-19 is bringing us a chance to institute, both from the gov’t and from us as individuals, charity. Don’t struggle with that grace-filled moment claiming “personal freedom”. That’s just the language of Eden’s serpent recapitulated.

When you have to remember the Preamble to the Constitution

NYC 1985. The Doomed.

JMJ

Last week when I told you about NYC in 1983, I titled the post Underground and discussed the active sense of denial that many engaged in. I compared AIDS in NYC, c. 1983, to where we were a week ago in this current crisis. Time is telescoping fast. The next stage in NYC in the 80s took about 2 years, more or less. We’ve gotten there in just about a week.

St Marks Baths closed in December of 1985. The city closed all the sex clubs. The medical establishment had finally convinced everyone in authority that AIDS was a sexually transmitted disease. As I mentioned last week there were still some who denied this. But most of us got the message: That was the end of the party. I was still in college. Our on-campus world was not well-connected with the larger community around NYU, as is common in all “college towns”. We had our own events on campus even though some of us ventured out beyond Washington Square. But politically, we experienced this.

There were arguments in meetings about the justification for closing places. Didn’t we have the freedom to do whatever we wanted? Didn’t public health trump personal freedom? Didn’t the Federal Gov’t need to step up support for AIDS patients? Didn’t we need to do something to stop this from killing everyone? Do I have it? Do you? Did that last experience kill us both? Was it my fault? Was it yours?

The frantic arguments, the frenetic do-literally-anything-NOW-DAMNIT attitude covered a deeper experience:

When the party was over… that was a huge downer, even for those of us who had never been to the party. Our elders and teachers… our friends… our guides started to die. The City began to change. People who used to go out all the time discovered other forms of community. We didn’t know what to do or who would be next. In fright, literally, I gave up. I turned to my fraternity brothers at NYU and built a close-knit and safe “family of choice”. I drank a lot, to be honest. Gin and tonic, rum and coke, pints of beer, brandy alexanders, Irish coffees. And I smoked heavily: a pack a day and then some. Only later did I realize I was killing myself on purpose behind everyone’s back (mine too).

Politically the gay community was powerless at this point. Making bars “legal” meant that they couldn’t be run by crime syndicates any more. Rather they needed corporate bank accounts and board members. They didn’t have to pay protection money to NYC Finest, so they didn’t get protected anymore. These syndicates had to find other ways to make income. Folks in the city were just getting used to seeing things like pride parades and same-sex couples who actually identified as couples. But they were “over there” not “here, with me”. They were rarely seen. The conversation still included lots of code words to identify one’s “friend” as someone of importance and often one took an opposite-sex friend to the company party.

Then AIDS became the conversation even out in the “regular” world. What might cause it? What might I do to avoid it? During this time I was involved in something called, I think, “The Columbia Study.” A pair of interviewers came to my home each year and asked me, anonymously, what I did, and who I did it with. Did I have a support network? Did I ever do drugs? They tracked me all over the place. Keeping track of me to see if AIDS had any effect on me as a person. What they found was I stayed home a lot.

During this time I first heard the phrase, “A virus does not have a conscience”. The idea was to counter people who were. saying “AIDS is God’s punishment”. You don’t get sick just because you “did a sin”. That’s not how a virus works. It can’t see you or judge you. That was the argument. It is, as far as we know, true: a virus does not have a conscience. Only 40 years later do I see the lie: the sentence leaves God out of the equation completely. But ok… let’s lay aside theology for a moment.

A virus does not make choices about who to infect based on their actions. That is true. But we learned (mostly by being forced to learn) that a virus can be passed on to others by our actions. Then we discovered we did not have consciences because we still wanted the sex clubs and the discos and the 25¢ theatres and the adult book stores all to stay open. What we began to do was a sort of two-faced dance. “A virus does not have a conscience” means both,”you cannot judge me” and “I can do whatever I want – if I’m gonna die, I’m gonna die.” Don’t close our party down!

I can go to spring break, to the Lunar New Year Parade, to the St Parick’s Day dance if I want. I demand we get our Public Masses back NOW!

I begin to feel like AIDS in the 1980s was like Prep School for COVID and none of us graduated.

Things were about to change, though. And things are about to change for us too. Not in a good way, I fear.

NYC 1983. Underground.

NYC Subway, 1983 or so

JMJ

My coworker asked if I had ever been through anything “like this” before. The answer was instant. Yes: AIDS in 1983. I spoke with a friend after Mass tonight and he agreed. AIDS in the early 80s was exactly like this.

In the early 80s (nearly until the end of the 80s, actually) we didn’t know what was causing it. HIV was a theory (a good one… and the right one it turns out) put forward in 1984 but even as late as 87 or 88, I remember a sizable portion of the gay community being quite vocal about multiple causes. One newspaper editor was quite convinced that the syndrome itself was caused by a combined one-two punch of Swine Flu complicated by rampant drug use. I remember a headline in his paper where a certain country had recently admitted to having AIDS patients. The secondary headline was “You know what else they have there? A lot of sick pigs.” We didn’t know – or didn’t want to admit – that this was your basic STD; albeit deadly.

A close friend was first diagnosed with AIDS in the spring of 1983 and was in St Vincent’s Hospital in Manhattan, they used to seal the doors with plastic sheets and make you wear masks, gloves, and gowns to visit AIDS patients. A wise mutual friend took me to see Mills in the hospital. We put on all the things and sidled through the plastic sheeting and then the nurse who was helping us ran back to the safety of her desk. We took off our plastic protections and kissed Mills on the forehead hello. In those days the journey from diagnosis to death was 1-2 years. Mills Omaly died in 1984.

Here’s a good sentence about 1981: By the end of the year, 121 of the individuals with the disease (of 270 reported cases) had died. It was 100% fatal in those days. For diagnosis, we had to rely on 3 marker diseases: Kaposi’s Sarcoma (a type of skin cancer), Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia (PCP), or a type of Lymphoma (another cancer). If you had one of these three things and you were a gay man, then you had AIDS. The issue is by the time you got to one of these three diseases, your AIDS was already quite advanced, and you’re about to die. We didn’t know this until later. So in 1983… someone would see the “wine-dark kiss of death” on their skin (Angels in America) and folks would run away. People would avoid them on the street. Families would disown them. Preachers would call it God’s Wrath. And since it was “only” gays, people treated them as a part of the populace that could be sacrificed. And then they would die, alone and isolated.

Even after the CDC ruled out casual contact as a possible vector of transmission a straight roomie once worried that he could get AIDS by sharing a smoke with me. But that was not just an issue of prejudice. This thing was so alien, even gays just didn’t know. People who thought that “gay” was a genetic thing suddenly wondered if AIDS was related to the “gay gene.” what if this was all programmed to collapse?

And even when we started talking about Safe Sex – which is to say use condoms, etc – I was in meetings where grown, intelligent people were like “Codswallop! I don’t need a condom, it’s not like anyone getting a baby here.” We didn’t want to admit it was your basic STD, albeit deadly, because that meant there was really only one way to stop it. That required everyone to play along, everyone needs to stop doing whatever they want. Bathhouses closed. Sex clubs closed. Back rooms in bars closed. And still, people were screaming about their personal freedom.

It was so freaking scary. I’m crying now. For friends I lost. For panic I felt. For questions I had that no one could answer. I was constantly checking lymph nodes, odd blotches, and using this breath thing where you made a ball float in a tube marked with calibrations. I don’t know what it was, anymore: it had something to do with lung capacity and pneumonia. Had I ever had sex with someone who had had sex with someone who had had sex with someone who had AIDS? Thinking these things then is probably why I’m alive now: but it took a whole lot out of me.

That’s where we are now, at least in my book, except the time is telescoped now. Instead of two years, we can be dead in two weeks. People are screaming about freedom, still, but casual contact can be – actually – deadly. A few weeks ago, we did not know what we know now. Italy hadn’t happened a few weeks ago.

People are in denial: talking about Population Density in China like they’re still in Grade School trying to imagine “One Billion People.” Early on in the current crisis I heard about virus spread as an issue of Population Density in China, and how can we keep “them” from coming here. We’ll be safe in the US. Then I realized that population density in SF, NYC, etc. is higher than in China. In fact, in NYC, the only Borough with a similar density to central Wuhan is Staten Island. The others have a per-mile density several times greater than central Wuhan. SF is 15K more populous per square mile than central Wuhan. DC is higher. LA is higher. Rome and Napoli are way less dense than those US cities… so… brace yourselves.

And some people still think a portion of the population is purely sacrificial. It’s only the elderly (which I’ve heard too damn much). It’s only Chinese. It’s only travelers. It’s only the poor.

Yes, I’ve been here before.