Almah Parthenos

JMJ

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Day 151: Parthenos

JMJ

But I would have you without carefulness. He that is unmarried careth for the things that belong to the Lord, how he may please the Lord: But he that is married careth for the things that are of the world, how he may please his wife.
– St Paul, I Corinthians 7:32-33

THESE THREE ESSAYS BEGAN with a High School remembrance from my discernment process while in the Episcopal Church. I was only just beginning to “discover” sex at that point in my life. Like all things misused, it can get out of control. The next essay was the learnings from misuse. All of this started, though, from that coversation in Clerically Speaking which I mentioned on Day 149. It left me meditating on the connection – and then the disconnect – between Marriage and Celibacy. These two paths are available to the Christian. There is no vocation to “the single life” although one does not need to be “under vows” to be a “eunuch for the kingdom of heaven”, neither can one just be “chillin’ but not married.” At best, one must be either working on one’s self for marriage or working on one’s self for celibacy. It was Father Harrison and Father Anthony that made the connection for me. I have written in the past that “virginity can be lost, but chastity can be restored.” My two ghostly fathers said, no, in fact, living a fully celibate life and making a commitment to it is a restoration of virginity. And then I remembered the Greek word used to describe the Most Holy Theotokos, παρθένος parthenos. Not only is this a title of the Blessed Virgin, it is also a title for the goddess Athena. It is from this title that the temple in Athens, the Parthenon, gets its name.

It is this word, parthenos, that is used in the Septuagint to translate Isaiah’s troublesome word, almah. Does that mean virgin or just young woman? In the Septuagint, coming with all the cultural implications of Athena, the Greek at least intends to imply virgin. But virgin how? Occult commentaries on the Greek Pagan world have tended to suggest that parthenos implies self-contained, or all-in-one. The virgin, therefore, be they a man or woman, is not necessarily someone who has never had sex but rather someone who is living in (or having restored) their self-integrity. The Fathers of the Clerical Pod are talking about men and women who are, by choice, living as parthenos.

St Paul, quoted at the beginning of this article, says that it is the unmarried man who is concerned with the things of the Lord. Saint Paul uses the Greek word ἄγαμος agamos which literally means without-marriage, not someone who has never had sex. Traditionally that has been understood as before marriage, but it can also be descriptive of anyone who is living outside of the bonds of matrimony, either through widowhood or choice. The problem is that for some folks in this world, living outside of marriage is not chosen for their spiritual growth but rather for their spiritual dalliance. In a conversation a with a friend of mine over pizza on a recent “cheat day” from my diet: he noted that some single, ordained men are celibate while others are merely bachelors. They both obey the Church’s rules on sex, but something divides them. Later, using those exact words a Dominican priest posted the same distinction on Facebook. Fr Harrison and Fr Anthony also took this up in an earlier episode of their podcast.

In the Courage to be Chaste, Fr Benedict Groeschel, CFR, recognizes that there’s a type of person who just stopped having sex because they can’t anymore. Perhaps they’re too old, or unattractive to the people around them, or maybe they’re scared.  Whatever the reason they stop having sex. Father Benedict finds this very disturbing: he recognizes that they’re following the rules, they may even have chosen to follow the rules, but in the end, they’re only not-having sex. Christian chastity requires the full integration of the human person’s sexuality into the human person’s spiritual life – parthenos. Marriage is one way to express Chastity. Celibacy is equally a way to express this full integration of the human person’s sexuality into his spiritual life.

Recent events, especially the medical quarantine, have underscored that I can stay alone and follow the rules. However, alone is not the same thing as celibate. Being alone simply means alone: free to do whatever I want. I can come and go as I please, free. Cool. However, this is a bachelor’s life. I have been living as a bachelor for much of my adult life. I have my obligations, which I meet, do my work, go to church. Then I am free to be me; doing whatever. This is bachelorhood. Sometimes you read about The Eccentric Old Man as a stereotypical citizen of San Francisco. I was, honestly, well on my way to being that. I don’t want that life.

There is a way in which such a man is “chaste”, as Fr benedict notes, without relying on the graces of the virtue of chastity. It follows the law, but there is no Spirit. Following the rules, alone, is not a way to Salvation. 

Marriage is about a graced commitment to an exclusive love. Celibacy is about a graced expression of a diffuse, universal, love. Bachelorhood, if you will, is about neither. The Bachelor can love you or not. He can commit or walk away. Anyone can stumble on the path to virtue, but a bachelor might decide, tomorrow, you know, this isn’t working for me. It’s “discerning a vocation to the single life”. I can stay here, but maybe I can move on. Marriage is a commitment. Celibacy is as well. “The Single Life”, Bachelorhood, is shenanigans.

When I reached a decision to bring my sexuality into my spiritual life as an integral whole, to adhere to the Church’s revealed teaching on sexuality, I realized the way, not to simply follow the rules, but to give my entire self to God; so that God, through me, could give his love to other people. Celibacy, like marriage, is a vocation:  a way to live the Christian Life in the world through God’s grace manifesting his kingdom here by means of our human sexuality. Vocation, here, does not mean “magical calling” that God gave me one day like a voice from off-camera in a TV Sitcom. Vocation here means “my job.” It’s a choice, the choice is “follow the church’s teaching this way… or follow the church’s teaching the other way.”

Celibacy, then is a way to integrate the entire human life into the Gospel and escape (or undo) bachelorhood. The energies that were once used inappropriately or mistakenly are now offered up in this daily sacramental action. The charism doesn’t protect one from falling, nor does it provide a handrail to hold on to with white knuckles, but it means that there is a key with which to unlock a whole other realm of action. Using the key everything around one is still the same: it is the self who is different. One becomes Parthenos. Hospitality is not an accident nor is it an obligation: rather it’s a gift. Celibacy allows the Parthenos to make an hospitable gift of self and of all. It allows one to make a sacramental action with everything around and with everything that one is, everything that one hope to be in God’s grace.

Self-gift is the meaning of love. Bachelorhood means I can give to you if I choose to, if feel like it but I’m not obligated. You may give to me something, I might give something back to you. Celibacy says I’m free to give away everything without expecting return because unlocking that secret, hidden realm means that in God’s grace I never run out: it’s no longer me giving. The cure for the “ungood” state of bachelorhood (It is not good for the earthling to be alone, says God to themself) is a commitment to communion, to love. We are either working towards this or not. I’ve known people in their 50s to be graced with a marriage towards which they were working that long. But I’ve known people in their 20s working towards neither salvation because of a great fear of missing out. They are afraid to take the risk either way – hurting others on the path as they go.

Vowed celibacy is neither a guard nor a “magical” protection against sexual sin. That protection is only in and through God’s grace. We are powerless to do anything without Christ. Neither steadfast faithfulness in sacramental marriage nor continual celibacy are possible otherwise. Neither of these are simply following the rules – but rather participation in grace. To paraphrase the Tao Teh Ching, water flows downward because that’s its proper, natural course. “Leaning in” to the vocation of celibacy means that this becomes my proper, natural course, my supranatural course, which I can follow only if I let God’s grace lead me there.

In this world, the choice for a celibate life is like marriage but in fact higher than marriage. Celibacy points to the kingdom in which we are to be, like the Angels, neither married nor given in marriage. Celibacy is laying aside the tools of this life in this life and living, as the Eastern Church puts it, the life of the Angels here and now. Celibacy requires the exact same self-gift that marriage requires. However, celibacy does not have the benefit of the sexual union of one person with one other person: the tool of the conjugal union is no longer an option. Instead, celibacy requires agape, eros, and philia to be all turned God-ward for the salvation of others. All of the human race, under our Father God, become our storge. Celibacy demands of her adherents a continual gift of self not limited by the same strictures that enclose marital love within a monogamous union. Instead, this love is to be given to all with the same intensity of eros and agape that arise within a marriage. We are called to the same desire for union and the same sacrifice as the married couple, but we are free to be concerned about the things of the Lord – everyone.

Ideally, a married person learns love in the school of love – the Christian family – and then carries that grace to the world. They can do this because God’s grace flows through their family and outward. What they offer to others is replenished by God’s grace when they “go home at night”. Celibacy calls her children to rely only on God for the continual replenishment of the same internal resources without the comfort of someone to go home to at night. It is the DIY School of Love: throw yourself into service, learn to love the hard way – without being loved back. Marriage unlocks the Love of God to flow through one to one spouse in a continual act of self-emptying, and thence to one’s children. Celibacy unlocks this same Grace so that God’s love can flow, self-emptying through one to all. Meaning no scandal at all, as Agape is Eros, Marriage is God’s monogamous love, celibacy is God’s polyamorous love.


HOW WE MOVE FORWARD in our lives from this choice between monogamy and polyamory is the working out of our salvation. Our self-gift must be poured out as the Father is, as Christ is, as the Spirit is. Until we are the chalice of the Mass filled to overflowing with blessings for others, we are not yet fully begun on the way, although within time we are always beginners. Until we select the path for ἄγαμος (without-marriage) or γαμος (marriage), we are not yet on the path: we have to pick in order to know how to go. Only then can we know how we are to be ordered toward the Good we have chosen.

God’s plan for you is your salvation: however he waits for your choice.

Let us then begin in Love.

Day 150: Self Gift

Picking up from yesterday’s post

JMJ

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

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

I Corinthians 13:4-8a

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See you tomorrow.

Day 149: Only A Tool

JMJ

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Anagogical Kylie

JMJ

Traditional Catholic teaching says there are four senses of scripture which must all agree. This is a useful meditation tool for the Word of God. The Catechism cites this Latin Couplet to parse it out:

Lettera gesta docet,
quid credas allegoria,
moralis quid agas,
quo tendas anagogia.

The Letter speaks of deeds;
Allegory to faith;
the Moral how to act;
Anagogy our destiny.

We can read all texts, searching for truth, on each of these levels. The reader may be familiar with using this process in literature. Secular texts (even those by Catholic writers) will usually aim at one or other of these levels, but only by God’s grace would anything hit all four. Lewis’ Narnia does deeds, allegory, and morality really well. Tolkien is no fan of allegory, but he does deeds, morality, and anagogy all through Middle Earth. It is fashionable also to do this to movies as well as literature. We can also do this with secular music. Although a pop-song is not scripture and do cannot contain all four levels of meaning certainly some songs might hit some levels.

Love songs (if they are true) must have a deeper meaning. God is love, and so any true love song is a religious song in one sense or another. As love songs grow continually more and more into sex songs this may become less and less true. However, even then – since sex is a gift from God – if they are true songs then God will be in them, to one degree or another. Addressing God in terms of love is often the field of the mystic. True love songs – while devoid of actions we want to replicate as Catholics and often containing only a negative morality – may have allegorical and anagogical meaning.

Kylie Minogue’s All the Lovers seems to me one such song. It is true. Although the official video is filled with things that would make a devout Catholic shudder (if not need to go to confession) the lyrics and the music are not that way at all. Although the song is written for one voice (Kylie, of course) if the song is parsed into dialogue it’s very different. I propose that like the Song of Songs, this text is a dialogue between Jesus and the Soul and it speaks of our ultimate end:

Jesus:
Dance, it’s all I wanna do, so won’t you dance?
I’m standing here with you, why won’t you move?
I’ll get inside your groove ’cause I’m on fire, fire, fire, fire
It hurts when you get too close, but, baby, it hurts
If love is really good, you just want more
Even if it throws you to the fire, fire, fire, fire

The Soul:
All the lovers that have gone before
They don’t compare
To you
Jesus:
Don’t be frightened
Just give me a little bit more
The Soul
They don’t compare
All the lovers

Jesus:
Feel, can’t you see there’s so much here to feel?
Deep inside in your heart you know I’m real
Can’t you see that this is really higher, higher, higher, higher?
Breathe, I know you find it hard, but, baby, breathe
You’ll be next to me, it’s all you need
And I’ll take you there, I’ll take you higher, higher, higher, higher

The Soul:
All the lovers that have gone before
They don’t compare
To you
Jesus:
Don’t be frightened
Just give me a little bit more
The Soul:
They don’t compare
All the lovers

Jesus:
Dance, it’s all I wanna do, so won’t you dance?
I’m standing here with you, why won’t you move?
The Soul:
Even if it throws you to the fire, fire, fire, fire, fire, fire

The Soul:
All the lovers that have gone before
They don’t compare
To you
Jesus:
Don’t be frightened
Just give me a little bit more
The Soul:
They don’t compare
All the lovers

Go Ask Og and Sihon.

JMJ

There is, from time to time, a sense of God’s love, perhaps even one that we can feel. At other times this feeling is gone and we may have a head- or even a heart-knowledge that the Love is still there, albeit sans feeling. Still, again, there may be times when we’ve done something or when we refused to live up to our best image of ourselves, or perhaps when we are aware that something has gone wrong with our moral compass. We find ourselves in a place further away from Eden than our normal haunts. 
Then we may feel like some real person facing our reality show President. You’re fired, we wait to hear. Except when God says it, it’s forever. And we are certain we deserve it.
Jesus says we are to Be perfect as our father in heaven is perfect. The example he gives is that it rains on the just and the unjust, although we know it rains more on the Just – for the unjust has stolen the just’s umbrella. Yet it rains on all. There is food provided for all (even if we refuse to share it). There’s space for all. No one wants to live there, but if the dense population of the island of Manhattan was enlarged to cover the entire states of Texas and Oklahoma, the population of the whole world would live there in no less comfort than in New York City. The whole planet could be left to the dogs – but no one wants to live in Texas – not even the Texans. That’s why there’s air conditioning: so they can pretend they live in San Francisco.
Be perfect. Be whole – as God is whole. God is not divided, God has only one action: love. It’s not a reaction: there is no other possible motion from the Prime Mover than Love. But unbounded, eternal his merciful Love, will feel like pure torture to a masochist.
Psalm 135 (136 in the Hebrew numbering) is a testament to God’s mercy. Every line is “because his mercy endures for ever”. “Ki l’olam khasdo” or in Latin, quoniam in aeternum misericordia ejus.
But it might not sound like merciful love to us… for God drowns Pharaoh in the sea (because his mercy is everlasting) and slays kings (because his mercy is everlasting) and there’s a couple named as dead, Og and Sihon (because God’s mercy is everlasting). Yet everything God does is love: not for one people, not for one nation, not for one Church, but with the purpose of bringing the whole world to himself.
We can all come: it will all be through Jesus, through Israel, through our first parents for there is no other way. One is either dancing inward in the great spiral dance to Godwards or else one is dancing away. As God’s only action can only ever be love, so our every reaction will either be lovewards or away from love. This is not only our steps to the music but our actions with the other dancers. We are either in love with all, or we are not. We must be head over heels in love (as is God) or we are failing to love.
We can feel it so strong that we have to weep and fall into sin just to protect our sense of reality, to hide from God in the garden. We must learn this love, must learn to live and move and have our being in this love. God will not be waving tiny, angry fingers at us on Judgment day. But if we have not learned how to love – learned from Love himself… will we be able to tell the difference? 
Be perfect as your Father is perfect.
Be love as your Father is love.
Love is all there is.