To be Normal Again

JMJ

YOU ARE ALL Arresting love and I cannot turn away from your light. The closer I get the more all other loves are revealed to be either actually you or not worthy of my attention at all. And the light burns my eyes. Certainly the burning is only the darkness falling away, yes, I know. Certainly the healing is more like scabs falling off to reveal a healed human beneath. But there is, increasingly, moments of regret where it would be so much easier just to be normal again.

Normal for us, though, does not mean what you mean.

Your normal is perfection, your normal is love, your normal is light and eternity.

Our normal is twilight, and shrouds, and going to brunch on Sundays with friends instead of Mass. Our normal is workouts at the gym and worrying about taxes, shopping at Ingles and having beers on Friday night. Our normal wakes up to sex or a new partner or fighting over politics as easily as looking at art or watching the latest MCU with Popcorn for the price of feeding the poor a dozen lunches.

And we don’t really care.

Your normal calls us to be what we were always intended to be, our true selves, our seed grown to full maturity. Your normal calls us to be what our bodies long to be from within the very quarks that make the atoms of our DNA. We long to be your sons and daughters, the men and women you wanted from all eternity. Our normal calls us to follow our bliss by doing what we want. So instead of our longing, our ends, our proper work, we get roller coasters of fun, adrenaline, hormones, death.

Your normal actually is our bliss, what we are ordered to. Your normal reveals our ideas of normal to be disorder. And we refuse to see it – literally turn our eyes away by force because to see our true bliss to follow our true bliss which is only you is to drop everything and run towards your with all our hearts, all our loves, all our writing…

Yet everything else can be so fun.

And your normal cuts one off from everything, eventually: because pecan pies, burgers, sex clubs, cuddly kittens, hot days in the park, even friends, are all distractions from you. All these loves are either actually you or not worthy of our attention at all. And all our lives is sorting out where you are – and are not. And letting go of both because we need to get to YOU. The source of all love, of all light, of all joy, of all normal.

So we back away.

Because your normal is so high above what we have come to enjoy.

A craving for a bit of respite is revealed as sloth: a desire to hide, only for a moment, from your normal. To be able to pretend that here for now, you who are everywhere present and filling all things, all times, all eternity, are not here, not filling my eyes. I can only hide for a moment and be alone. Yet you are here too. And I cannot unsee that, I cannot unknow that. I can only be your normal now because anything else is not normal at all.

And all our normals fall away until only you are there. And we cannot run or hide. You seduce us – but we have to let ourselves, I must let myself be seduced. And having been so ravished, anything else is just harlotry.

The flesh pots of Egypt were savory.

Ravish me again.

An Integralism of Liberation

Wherein we discuss Aquinas, Ignatius, freedom, a real integralism, and truth.

JMJ

YOU MAY REMEMBER The parable of the foolish (rich) man, which came up in the readings recently in the US:

And he said unto them, Take heed, and beware of covetousness: for a man’s life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth. And he spake a parable unto them, saying, The ground of a certain rich man brought forth plentifully: And he thought within himself, saying, What shall I do, because I have no room where to bestow my fruits? And he said, This will I do: I will pull down my barns, and build greater; and there will I bestow all my fruits and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, thou hast much goods laid up for many years; take thine ease, eat, drink, and be merry. But God said unto him, Thou fool, this night thy soul shall be required of thee: then whose shall those things be, which thou hast provided?
– Luke 12:15-120 AV

Your host has been studying up on Liberation Theology. Certainly, this is because of other reading: having just spent a year reading the Catechism, Church History, Fundamental Theology, and Philosophy, one’s brain tends to get fired up and a summer program was needed. Additionally, several events in the US and in the Levant have caused one to be triggered. Also, in the middle of Covidness there was a debate in Catholic Social Media around the question, Can one be a socialist and a Catholic? The great range of responses to this (each insisting they were the one, right answer) precipitated research. Then, finally, a new job which daily puts one in touch with those who are most rejected in our own city has sent this writer searching. For intercessors on this journey, Blessed Stanley Rother, the Servant of God Dorothy Day, and the Orthodox Saint Maria of Paris all presented themselves. There have been numerous podcasts as well: The Liberation Theology Podcast, Tradistae, and The Josias to name a few. Please note that these come from all across the political spectrum. I’m trying to figure it out.

All Catholic social teaching begins with the doctrine that God intended all of creation for all people. It promptly moves to the idea that if you’re not sharing – if you hoard things up in barns like in the parable – you’re on the wrong path. And you’re going to die anyway. If we stand up and say “everything is amazing I’m going to build new barns…” then we’re in the wrong place. It seems entirely damning to say the value (or increased value) of this physical thing is more important than the justice due others. As we work out our salvation in fear and trembling, we may – at different times – find recourse to the laws of the land. Changing the systems (as needed) to fit our faith is Catholic Integralism – subjecting the state to the Church’s teaching on social and political matters. It matters not if that subjection is perceived as right, left, or centrist. Although often seen as a “right wing” op, Liberation Theology is also a species of Catholic Integralism, as the latter is properly understood. So how can we build a state around the ideas of liberation? How can we ensure the universal destination of goods and to what extent should the state be involved in that process?

We begin with the Church herself. On 6 August 1984, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) issued an Instruction on Certain Aspects of the ‘Theology of Liberation. Sent out of the signature of Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, as he then was, it’s a very clear rejection of some of the tools used by my sources. It carries the Church’s Magisterium’s full authority, so we are obligated to follow it as faithful Catholics. In that light, it is important to note that the first third of the document essentially affirms the orthodoxy of many (if not most) of the tenets of Liberation Theology citing Church councils, both ecumenical and regional, as well as previous magisterial documents. Peppered through the rest of the document are additional statements of strong support. The items rejected though, are the tools of Marxist and materialist analysis, and what the document rightly calls a “partisan conception of the truth.”

Here, from Chapter X:

1. The partisan conception of truth, which can be seen in the revolutionary ‘praxis’ of the class, corroborates this position. Theologians who do not share the theses of the “theology of liberation”, the hierarchy, and especially the Roman Magisterium are thus discredited in advance as belonging to the class of the oppressors. Their theology is a theology of class. Arguments and teachings thus do not have to be examined in themselves since they are only reflections of class interests. Thus, the instruction of others is decreed to be, in principle, false.
2. Here is where the global and all-embracing character of the theology of liberation appears. As a result, it must be criticized not just on the basis of this or that affirmation, but on the basis of its classist viewpoint, which it has adopted ‘a priori’, and which has come to function in it as a determining principle.

Your host believes this to be the core objection – even stronger than the rejection of Marxism, per se. The “partisan conception of truth” posits first (in the case of Latin America) that the poor are “good guys” and the rich are “bad guys”. Going further, it seems to say the rich can’t be saved as they are rich with an added implication that the poor are already holy exactly because they are poor. As the document notes, the arguments of the rich, as a class, are rejected because they are rich. Truth does not matter at all: rich people can’t speak the truth here.

As liberation theology moves outside of Latin America, a partisan idea of “poor” gets replaced by an even more partisan idea of “oppressed”. Anyone who self-classifies as “oppressed” becomes “good guys”. So, as the document points out, there are now divergent “theologies of liberation”, each one liberating a group of people from oppression at the expense of others who are classified as “oppressors” in a way they (the oppressors) cannot escape. Unlike poverty which can possibly be addressed by redistributive economies mere “oppression” needs to be defined in opposition to the “Oppressor”. The Oppressed may often have the same social position and power as the Oppressors. They may even be of the same economic class. For example: can a theology of liberation be applied to the “oppressed” middle-class women of American Suburbia? Are same-sex families which, statistically, tend to be of higher incomes and higher education (double income/no kids), have a theology of liberation, properly understood? Are they “poor” in the Church’s sense of a preferential option for the poor? In these cases, there seems to be a desire to “liberation” something without ever questioning if the liberation, itself, is moral. In fact, the question of “morality” is, for some, just more oppression, but that’s where we need to start.

Let’s Start at the Very Beginning

Liberation theology is often seen as the province of Jesuits and every Jesuit is formed using the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius so we shall start there, with what is known as the First Principle and Foundation of the entire Ignatian tradition.

Man is created to praise, reverence, and serve God our Lord, and by this means to save his soul.

And the other things on the face of the earth are created for man and that they may help him in prosecuting the end for which he is created.

From this it follows that man is to use them as much as they help him on to his end, and ought to rid himself of them so far as they hinder him as to it.

For this it is necessary to make ourselves indifferent to all created things in all that is allowed to the choice of our free will and is not prohibited to it; so that, on our part, we want not health rather than sickness, riches rather than poverty, honor rather than dishonor, long rather than short life, and so in all the rest; desiring and choosing only what is most conducive for us to the end for which we are created.

The Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius of Loyola.

A stroll around the net will reveal many ways in which this text has been paraphrased to mean any number of things in these post-Christian days, but at the root, it all begins here: Man is created to praise and serve God with the end goal of becoming a great saint. Anything that furthers that goal is to be embraced. Anything that hinders that goal is to be rejected. Here, then, is the first principle of liberation: the removal of all things in our life that prevent us from praising and serving God. Although many paraphrase Ignatius to say something to the contrary, it would be clear that sin cannot be tolerated here. Anything contrary to God’s revealed plan cannot be classified as “liberation theology”. Additionally, as we know, things contrary to God’s will become, in themselves, oppression – a way to avoid becoming a saint. Repeated sin becomes a mental habit of sin – an addiction. We are entrapped by our own actions.

(Thanks to Elle Ornido for pointing out this video.)

Many “theologies of liberation from oppression” start by saying “this thing we thought was a sin is not a sin” and add “language of sin is – itself – oppression.” These are not theologies, then, properly understood, since they begin with rejecting revealed truth. They are, then, ideologies. These ideologies rob the church of the language of salvation. In a religion based on “the world” truthful language describes reality. To use untrue language (“this is not a sin”) is to describe illusion, to lie. These ideologies only enslave us further to our sins. So, for example, sexual sin: there cannot be a theology of liberation that starts with the approval of disordered passions. To be truly liberating we must begin with Truth (that is, Jesus).

Conclusion: A Theology of Real Liberation

Let us return, then, to the Universal Destination of Goods and discuss what real liberation might mean.

Those who say the laws of the state must hinder us from sin are correct. But sin is not only a matter of sexual morality, divorce, and adult magazines and movies, etc. If our laws are not just, if they hinder the universal destination of goods, if they destroy the earth, they are equally immoral. They are equally damning to those who willingly participate in that system. Slavery, human trafficking, unjust housing policies, business practices that shift the pollution overseas, or the real cost of products onto the shoulders of underpaid labor are all equally damning. A political process that does not address all of these – and more – is not liberating. Further, unless the state liberates all peoples – the oppressed and the oppressor – it is not liberation at all. It’s not, therefore, integralism. It’s just another form of modern government. The laws which create usurious debt, which prevent just housing, which grant the rights of persons (divine icons) to fictitious entities like businesses and political organizations are all opposed to the Catholic Church’s anthropology and natural law. An integralist state must oppose these as firmly as it must oppose divorce, abortion, and other expressions of sexuality contrary to God’s law.

But first, the Church must make clear how all of these are liberation and how all of these negative are, themselves, real oppression as certainly as is economic oppression. The Church’s choice (and each Catholic’s in the Church) must be to become saints – to be saved. After that, each choice will be obvious for each person: a rich man may have different choices available than a poor child. A white person may have different options than a person of color. But there is no “preferential option for the [fill in the blank]”. There is only the preferential option for the poor. We must all become poor to enter the kingdom. But while there are systemic sins in our present structures, a real integralism must liberate both the “Jew and the Greek, the slave and the free, the male and female;” it must liberate all as “one in Christ Jesus” or it will not liberate anyone. We must tear down all our barns and ensure that the laws of the integralist state ensure the universal destination of all the goods (physical and spiritual) of God’s creation.

The Church must make clear that our first question is not a paraphased version of Ignatius, but rather his exact text, how can we set up for each person “to praise, reverence, and serve God our Lord, and by this means to save his soul?” Once we have done that – and only when we have done that – will we be on our way to salvation.

Yeah. That’s Not You

The Greek is “Know Yourself” from excavations in the convent of San Gregorio in Rome.

VEDIC ANTHROPOLOGY responds to the question of Divine Transcendence vs Immanence by way of the Mahāvākyas, the Great Sayings of the Upanishads. These are four in number and they highlight the lack of division between self (which is an illusion) and the universal consciousness. The wiki sums this up with, “They all express the insight that the individual self (jiva) which appears as a separate existence, is in essence (atman) part and manifestation of the whole (Bramha).” I did not know about three of the sayings until today, when I was researching the one that I did know: tat tvam asi तत् त्वम् असि. It means, colloquially, that is you.

A better translation is being-ness you is you-ing. तत् tat, indicates the essence of being, and I think gets at the sense of what St Thomas means when he says God is beingness, ipsum esse subsistens: in God Being and Essence are the same thing. For the Vedas, however, तत् त्वम् असि tat tvam asi means that same Being/Essence is true of all of us, because our individuality is an illusion: all is one thing. ν τὸ πᾶν hen to pan as the pagan Greeks would say, “all is one”. The deeper one delves into oneself the more one sees that one is that universal being-ness. It is in contemplation of this realization that one learns to let go of all illusion.

This is not Christian anthropology, however. Physical reality is not an illusion. Individual persons are not illusions. In fact, each of us retains an image of God: the Unique Individual who is being in his essence. In the Christian Revelation, God is not only the Unique Individual but, in his being, he is a community of persons, a superfluity of love and communion flowing outwards in creation. Each of us was made by intention for participation in this continual outpouring. As the Fathers say, all human beings (individual persons) share in one Human Nature. And, through the incarnation of God, our common human nature is now united with Divinity and seated at the Right Hand of the Father. We all share in this glory if we open ourselves to participation for we are closed off, pretending/insisting/deluded into feeling we are isolated and that our success or failure rests on our own actions, in this world only.

All of that by way of introduction, by way of setting up that for the Christain, the human beingness of the person is deeper than anything we can imagine, sense, touch, or see. As CS Lewis once wrote, “Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses.” You are that as well. All human beings are that.

That’s what I want to turn a corner in this meditation. You know how Babies are Made: Egg meets sperm. Genetic material from Mom and Dad combine, like the Yin and the Yang in the Taoist symbol. Where each side (yin/yang) contains also their parents in a Yin/Yang combination as well. The Christian teaching is that at that moment God especially creates a soul for that person. All animals reproduce in some way, genetic material combining in some way, but for human beings it is different: for God gives a unique, individual soul to each meeting of egg and sperm. This is why, for faithful Catholics, that being cannot be killed from conception to natural death without offending the God who created it. It’s not about “viability” or “quality of life”, it matters not about the mental capacity or the social participation, about the cost or the pain. In short: from conception to natural death, each human being is 50% Mommy’s DNA, 50% Daddy’s, and 100% God’s. The Yin/Yang of DNA is Ensouled. (Mommy+Daddy)God. An animal is a fleshly being, an Angel is a spiritual being. A Human Being is another thing entirely: flesh and spirit in one beingness. Higher than animals, but lower than Angels, and seated at the right hand of God the Father in Glory. This is what it means to be human. Tat Tvam Asi. Then things happen to us.

Knowing that, you can see the Christian response to racism: which is to remark on something decidedly besides the point. One’s culture, one’s skin color, one’s ancestry makes one no less a living image of God than any other human. To deny the humanity of another based on their skin color is to literally blaspheme the holiest object (other than the Host) available to us.

But I want to carry this conversation not forward to how we react to others (abortion and racism are a good conversation to have in that context, as are any other form of economic or political oppression of the weaker by the powerful). Let’s carry it backward to how we view ourselves: what do I add to this beingness that God has given me?

Paul’s comments about social position, ethnicity, and even sex are important. Paul notes that there is neither “Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male and female.” I think there might be a whole book to write on what Paul means by his two-fold neither/nor followed by one neither/and but I only want to point out that Paul pushes us all the way back to the beingness we all share from that instant of (Mommy+Daddy)God. We add a lot of things to that: national identities, race, sexualities, neurodiversities, class, politics, religion, wealth, education… and we divide people by these data points. Thing is, that’s not you. Those data points are not who you are. To paraphrase our Sanskrit, each of those things, Tat Tvam Na Asi. तत् त्वम् न असि That is not your being.

We create cultural identities for these data points and then we insist these are our realities, instead of the Fleshly Ensoulment of (Mommy+Daddy)God that is our divine right. That, and that alone, is the only thing that counts in the end. We know this and still we push those other things into what it means to be “me” on equal standing with our Divine Humanity.

Instead of trusting by faith what God has told us we look to our feelings, our desires, our passions, our pangs of hunger to define us. We fail to see the gift of the body God gave us as anything other than a tool to fulfill our desires. We think we can abuse it to get that fulfillment even when the abuse is not according to the obvious and natural use of our ensouled flesh. We treat our mind and our feeling as “more me” than our body. When it is body and soul that come together to make the person. We do this by pretending “some of my best friends are…” and also by pretending we can ignore the DNA coursing through every cell in our body.

We treat the body as not-me, and try to bring into alignment with what we imagine “me” to be. To this end entire industries have developed to keep us looking young or, indeed, keep us looking like anything other than the body God gave us. To imply God gave us such a body is an imposition on our rights but (Mommy+Daddy)God will not go away.

This is the oft-unspoken part of Christian anthropology, the Mystery of it. You’ve heard it misspoke at funerals, especially of children: dying to become an angel. “God wanted another angel.” But Angels are beings entirely of spirit. Death is the breaking of a human into two halves: for Human Beingness is flesh and soul. The Glory is that at the general Resurrection all souls and their bodies will be one again. Death is the final enemy of division that will be conquered. But already it is undone: for death is no longer the end for us, in Christ the Resurrection has already begun. So, even in eternity, (Mommy+Daddy)God will be with us. This is us fully. When we die we will be this still. Tat Tvam Asi.

Accompanying

JMJ

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes.

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

Yes. And more.

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

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

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

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

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

The Undragoning

JMJ

IAM CRUCIFIED with Christ,” said St Paul. “Yet I live, not I but Christ who lives in me.” What is “I” here? Who is crucified? Certainly St Paul had endured a lot in his life after conversion – scourgings, stonings, shipwrecks, hunger, homelessness, long labors. I’m sure there were nights of hunger on the road as well, and times of loneliness. The Epistles document some emotional turmoil as well: riffs with friends and coworkers, trouble with disciples and the Church. If Paul had an Irish mother she would say, “Offer it up!” But Paul says, “I am crucified”. What gets nailed down?

In CS Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader there is the story of Eustace, the boy who was turned into a dragon. Finally, Eustace is saved from being a dragon by Aslan, the savior lion. Aslan takes Eustace-the-Dragon to a lake to bathe and, for a while he lets the dragon wash himself and scrape off the old scales. Then finally, Aslan takes matters into his own paws and begins to rip the dragon-ishness off of Eustace, layer by layer. At the end of the “undragoning of Eustace” he’s a boy again, finally able to rejoin his friends as a human. He’s been helping them as a dragon up til now, though – flying around and lifting heavy things like a dragon can do, starting fires to keep people warm, and the like. But now, as a boy, he can return to them as an equal. Thing was, he didn’t want to be a dragon: although he was one for ever so long. He wanted to be human again.

Only humans can be crucified with Christ: dragons cannot be.

When you were conceived your father’s sperm joined your mother’s egg. They fused together, and in that instant, God created for you a spirit which flamed to life and, from that moment you are half Mom’s DNA and half Dad’s DNA and 100% God’s. This is your heart: it’s always with you. Your beingness is this. In the last day, your body and spirit will still be. This cannot be undone for, for God, un-being is a quality he cannot have. And since your being arises in him, being you shall always be. This is the heart of humanness: this union of spirit and body that is half Mom, half Dad, and fully God. The thing is, from that moment, for all of us, there is something that keeps us from connecting to it, something that keeps us from entering this heart and doing the one thing that we need to do – which is offer it to God. Yes, God is there, dwelling at the core of our being, like it or not, for it cannot be otherwise for any being. (The demons know this about themselves and loathe the knowledge and their very selves.) But God, at the core of our being, waits for us to come to him.

To do so we must be undragoned.

Some of our dragon layers are things we made up: ideas about who we are and how we present ourselves to the world. Some of these layers are things the world did to us: our parents, schools, pop-science, bad theology, and politics. Some of these layers are the results of our sins: fake ideas of self built on false foundations, then facades added, and layers of plaster to hold the facade in place, and huge flying buttresses to hold the plaster, and then finally giant works of art applied to the outside to make everything look pretty. We are Gothic cathedrals of fake selves. When we come to Christ, we hope to worship God in this temple – God welcomes us just as we are! But we soon discover this temple we built is the first thing that has to go. We take some art down, we take some arches away and say, “Now it’s ok”. But God says, “More.” OK, let me open the doors and rearrange the seating. But God only says, “More.”

Eventually, we realize that we must offer the whole thing to the Divine Demolition Artist and he begins to tear it down. Each removal, each destruction will hurt like hell. It will feel like we’re finally being crucified. We’re finally offering everything to God. But dragons (our fake selves) cannot be crucified. Only humans can be. Each removal is only preparation for more demolition, each departure of some well-beloved thing of merely-sinful beauty is only the prepwork.

This can take forever. It’s the whole purpose of Purgatory: but we can let God start on this now, if we dare.

In the end, and only by God’s power, we can be fully undragoned. Only then, devoid of our false layers, can we be crucified.

Chapter 2: My Journey

JMJ

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


My Journey

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

– Love Song

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

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

Retrieved on 18 Feb 2020

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

In the Shell of the Old

JMJ

ONE AND DONE CONVERSIONS are a dime a dozen. There’s a kind of change and an emotional rush and then things go on as they never did before. Or at least so we are told in fairy tales end conversion movies. The Grinch’s small heart grew three sizes that day. Scrooge kept Christmas the best of any man in London. A kiss from Prince Charming wakes the princess and they live happily ever after. Electing this one politician will solve all your problems. Conversions in the Bible, however, are often more problematic. David stumbles all through his reign, Peter denies Christ, Abraham struggles with God’s promises (what was that bit about Hagar if not a loss of faith?), the Jonah runs away, Moses says “Just kill me now”. These stories are more real – because we know that as human beings “one and done” is not a thing. Today’s feast of the Conversion of St Paul is no different.

Today, St Paul realizes his mistake, but it takes years for him to apply the realization. Certainly, he takes it seriously but he doesn’t quite realize the fullness of the implications. He goes away to learn, to pray, and to meditate. Yet even when he comes back he is still struggling. Biblical Scholars who attempt to put the letters of the Apostle into what they believe is a chronological order can discern theological development on several topics. This is not a bad thing for there is no change there is only evolution. Paul struggles with his brothers and sisters in Christ – even fighting with Peter. And famously there is The Thorn in the Flesh.

Lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure. For this thing I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me. And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong. 2 Corinthians 12:7-10 (AV)

This thorn has been interpreted in many ways: from a hot temper to an annoying physical or even Satanic opponent, from a medical malady to a spiritual anguish, and – which interests me most – temptation to impiety. Not only is this my favorite because it seems to be preferred by many Roman Catholic writers (at least according to the reference linked above) but also it parallels well with other Saints who note that they struggle with doubt and Atheism until their death. The general temptation is just to throw up your hands and walk away. What makes it all worth this? This, of course, can differ from person to person.

I suspect that this – whatever this may be – might well be based on one’s past. This Thorn in the Flesh with which each of us struggle is some part of the old man (pre-conversion life) that God leaves in us for his own purposes: the addict with her addiction, the dissolute with the ease of such a life, the Scholar with the knowledge of his discipline and pride, the rich their skills in the service of Mammon, the magus with her desire for control. Yet all things are for our good – the salvation of our souls and of the world. Our individual thorns then serve a purpose.

One purpose seems to me very personal: if everything from my old life were to suddenly vanish would I even know who I am? Much of my old life was used to craft a (fake) image of who I am; an understanding of my very being and person. Yes, I must depend upon God for my identity and my life but it seems it would a special act of grace, indeed, to take away everything from the past and leave me healthy and whole. I don’t see much record of this happening in the lives of the Saints or in the scriptures. Psychologically, it seems we must build the new man in the shell of the old. Parts of the old go away instantly but other parts take a whole lifetime to dissolve or repurpose: they are the scaffolding for this new construction, the crane towering over the building site that becomes the elevator shaft.

There is something else as well. The struggle is not just a struggle for virtue. It is a struggle for the enrichment of the faith. Paul’s Thorn in the Flesh is not just something he has to struggle with: it’s something that God uses to make the fullness of his power known not only to Saint Paul but also to us. We are surrounded with a “great cloud of witnesses” (Heb 12:1): not just the Saints and Angels but also those who see our life and our struggle. As someone once said, “Your life may be the only gospel that someone ever reads.” What will they read there? Will they see there a one-and-done conversion moment or will they see struggles for sainthood to which they can relate? When you tell the story of your conversion will it be one of dropping your baggage off and running forward or one of an ongoing journey that was filled with hope and loss?

In a recent movie about his life, Paul struggles not with specific sins but rather with the memory of his early life killing Christians. He wakes up from nightmares wherein he’s ripping children out of their mothers arms. At the end of the movie, after his death, Paul is standing in heaven alone. Over the hill comes a crowd of people, the first line of whom he recognizes as people he has slain. They rush to him and you can – momentarily – feel the fear from the Apostle. They embrace him as their brother in Christ and it is perhaps the most moving moment in the film as fear becomes joy. Your host realizes this is entirely speculation on the filmmaker’s part but this is what happens to our thorns in the end. God does not take them from us: but rather reveals what they have done for us and others. As St. Catherine of Siena prayed, “Do not take this temptation away from me but give me victory over it.” The Victory, though, will be more grace.

This is the Christian hope: that our dry lives become deep wells for others, and that God can take our old and mouldy grain, grind it up, and make of it bread for the Body of Christ.

Only asking hearts our Lord comes
Mine I would freely give
But made of stone and mortar’d sin
too heavy for me to raise
Take this rock and shatter it
Give me a heart of flesh like yours
On fire with love for those
You send to me
To find the damaged icons
To seek the lost and serve
Then burning with your passion’d love
From shards of stone and pride
An altar builded whereupon
At last my heart can rest.

Disorder as Liberation

JMJ

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.