The Wholly Name

JMJ

The Readings for the 23rd Tuesday, Tempus per Annum (C2)

Everyone in the crowd sought to touch him because power came forth from him and healed them all.

Luke 6:19 (NABRE)

WHEN THE ANGEL Spoke to Mary (in Luke 1:32) she was told she would have a Son and she should call him Jesus. Later, that same angel shared with Joseph, “She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21) The linkage of the name “Jesus” to “Joshua” is usually emphasized, the latter meaning “the LORD saves” and “Iesus” is the Greek form of Joshua. But there is something deeper. Much deeper. Jesus was not named in Greek. And while “Iesus” is the Greek form of his name, in Hebrew the name is Yeshua. However, add a silent “h” sound and change the accent and we get ‘yeshuah’ which means Salvation.

It’s not that “Jesus Saves” as the bumper sticker has it, but rather that Jesus is Salvation in his person. What is “Salvation” though? What is the meaning or the content, if you will, of being saved? The Gospel today points it out: There’s calling, there’s accepting the call, there’s the renaming. There’s hearing the teaching and there’s healing.

Please note that everything in this is a sort of dialogue. Jesus calls, we accept the call and Jesus renames us. Jesus teaches and we accept the teaching then Jesus heals us. The whole Gospel is encapsulated in one pericope of 7 verses if we but use our eyes to see it. But salvation is a dance in which God leads, but we follow, in which God heals, but only what we offer him for healing, in which God loves us and gives us the grace to love him in return.

When we open our ears to the call of Jesus and allow ourselves to be drawn into the dance, our entire identity is changed: we go from being trapped in worldly ideas about who we are to entering into a right relationship with God. When I was Chrismated into the Orthodox Church, as the priest was wiping off the sacred oils from my face and eyes, he said to me – quoting St Paul – “you are washed, you are sanctified, you are justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ.” This was my new identity and I was even given a new name – for St Raphael, the Bishop of Brooklyn. As a saint stands in right relationship to God, so – by the prayers of many – I may one day grow into the fullness of that right relationship. But I have to forego all the things that hold me to the world.

There is no part of me (or perceived part of me) that I can point at and say, “But that one thing I will keep.” I can no longer base my identity on anything that is mine – only on Jesus, who is not Mine save that I am his. And to be his I have to let go of all the brokenness I value, all the things that I think make up “who I really am”. I must let Yeshua be my yeshuah. I must let Jesus be Jesus to me.

Otherwise all this is in vain. Jesus will make me whole but only when and as I let him. If I hold back he will not force his way in – but then I will not be saved.

In the end the things that I thought of as I, me, and mine that are not part of Jesus were never mind in the first place. And the things that are missing from the fallen me, will be found in him and will be mine for all eternity as our love deepens to infinity in contemplation of the Father.

Everything That Is Missing | כל מה שחסר
Shilo Ben Hod

Lyrics in Translation:

Verse 1
I won’t seek what is missing
But I will search for the One who fills
In a dry or fertile land
More than anything, I need You only
Even life is not good
If at the end people die without knowing You
If I could choose anything, I’ll choose You

Chorus
It’s better to lose everything, just to gain You
And to pay the price, in the end everything is Yours
To go all they way until the end, because only in the end I’ll meet You
And then everything that is missing, will be completed in You

Verse 2
I’m not searching for all the answers
But I’m asking for the truth that is in You
When confusion rules or there is clarity
Above all, let me know You
All of the miracles won’t help
If people never experience Your love
If I could choose anything, I’ll choose You

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Validate Me

JMJ

The Readings for the 11th Wednesday, Tempus per Annum

Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward.

Matthew 6:2b (NABRE)

MANY RECENT CONVERSATIONS have been around the topic of seeking validation. Your host became aware of this issue leaving his job history (of nearly 25 years) in the DotCom industry and moving back into Church work. One of the main changes was the way in which workers are treated. Don’t get me wrong: I wasn’t treated poorly in DotCommuslavia nor are I treated poorly in the parish where I work. In fact, in both places, the treatment is, I think, above average. It’s the how of the treatment that interests me at this moment.

In my previous line of work, praise and acclamation is not only a given, but perhaps the main point of most conversations. One constant feature of my day was verbal praise, emails filled with bouncing gifs, and a slack filled with emojis celebrating every aspect of my life and the lives of my coworkers. Hands in the air, rainbow flags, and – my personal favorite – the Party Parrot.

Angel Parrot

Leaving there to come to parish ministry, all those shenanigans went away. It was quite an ego collapse, let me tell you! For more than a few months I had no idea if I was doing my job correctly – or at all. There was no tradition of meetings starting with affirmations (prayer, yes, affirmation, no). There was no culture of positivity, there was no “design of personal empowerment”. Sigh, I can still speak the language. Anyway, (NEway, as the cool kids say) what came to me was that this was how the real world functions – a lot less smoke blowing and quite a lot of adulting.

Or another way to look at it would be to realize that a huge part of our culture is based on affirmation: what others think of me is important. What others do or say must be evaluated on how it makes me feel. If it does not affirm me, there’s a problem. If you don’t put a rainbow flag in your company logo for June, you’re a hater.

Jesus tell us not to seek the praise of others, nor to do anything in order to get that praise. Jesus tells us to do thinks not to be seen – in fact to hide away lest we be seen at all. Jesus suggests that we even keep the knowledge so secret that our left hand will not know what our right hand is doing.

There’s nothing wrong with praise – as such – but there is a lot wrong with praise seeking or even attention seeking. I struggle with this a lot because attention is the currency of the internet. That’s why I’ve owned Doxos.com since 1998 and why I’ve been e-journalling since before there were blogs at all. (I love that my blogger profile says Member Since October of 2001.) My original twitter number was in the low 600k. My FB account has been around since Mark first let non-college students join. (The original idea was only college students and only people who were known already by other members could join. Then this was opened up.) MySpace, LiveJournal, and a few other services were all places I could go for attention.

Attention seeking keeps you from growing up: from owning your opinions, from acting on your beliefs and – eventually – attention seeking makes you jealous of (and vindictive around) the interactions in this world of “Social Capital”. What will we do? When we act on our faith are we doing so to be seen doing so? When we hold back for the same reasons, what will become of us? Will Twitter Deplatform me if I speak out the truth about sexuality and human sexual differences? Or would I dare say that at all anyway? Conversely, am I saying them out loud just to get more attention? Clickbait is an artform.

And we already have our reward.

And the spiritual is no longer good enough: we can’t get the “hits” of likes from God who already loves us infinitely. There’s no more God-capital to get. So we need more social hits every day to make up for turning our back on infinity.

The curious thing is that, depending on your job, this behavior works at work. You have no reason in the secular world not to do this. Our entire person is external and socially constructed in that world. But in the Christian world, our personhood is internal: generated by God and involved only in authentic communion with other persons equally God-given. To be you requires an internal dynamic that has nothing to do with attention (social, sexual, or otherwise).

A Christian is set free from craving likes and tweets. We are called to focus on Jesus even when it means the world hates us. Think instead how may Catholics imagine persecution is coming. I mean, of course it is, but getting kicked off YouTube is not persecution!

We should pray, follow the rules of the faith (fasting, etc), or do the works of mercy (give charity) to please God and to work out our salvation in fear and trembling. But if we’re doing them to be seen, we already have the reward for which we are working. We did it for no spiritual reason at all – and so our reward is not spiritual.

The Christian & Identity – Pt 3

JMJ

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Christian & Identity – Pt 2

JMJ

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So there are three options here:

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

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

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

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

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

The Christian & Identity – Pt 1

JMJ

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A second tale:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jesus’ bloody feet we track

Memorial of St Charles Lwanga & Companions, Martyrs

Readings for 7th Friday after Easter (C2)

He said this signifying by what kind of death he would glorify God. And when he had said this, he said to him, “Follow me.”

John 21:19

OUR LORD SAYS TO St Peter, “Follow me.” It can sound like a repetition of the initial call three years earlier at the boat. Each of the apostles received such a call. All of us do.

We are all called to follow Jesus. It is a call, and a performative reality: we cannot do it unless God calls us, but to hear it is to obey. Think of how all the Apostles jumped up and followed, leaving all behind. We are called in exactly the same way in our lives. Yet there is something more than the initial call here.

It may seem like something connected to the earlier commands to feed and shepherd Christ’s flock. That came to Peter, indeed. The others also get the command in the same way and we do too. We are all commanded to feed and to shepherd Christ’s people. The act of love is one of kenosis, of self-pouring out. We’re not Christians unless everything God gives us is given away for others. We feed and shepherd by teaching, by sharing our faith and our material goods, by living moral lives in keeping with God’s commands. We do so by performing all the works of mercy – both spiritual and corporeal:

To feed the hungry.
To give water to the thirsty.
To clothe the naked.
To shelter the homeless.
To visit the sick.
To visit the imprisoned, or ransom the captive.
To bury the dead.
To instruct the ignorant.
To counsel the doubtful.
To admonish the sinners.
To bear patiently those who wrong us.
To forgive offenses.
To comfort the afflicted.
To pray for the living and the dead.

You can see “feed and shepherd” all over that list! But it’s not what we’re here for today. Yet there is something more. There’s one other way we follow Jesus – and he calls Peter to it.

St Charles Lwanga was such a shepherd to his companions, urging them to resist the sexual advances of a predator seeking to humiliate them exactly because of their faith. Let me have my way with you because it will violate your faith: has there ever been a more evil temptation? We know that sexual sins can make us feel literally unclean. Even though confessors have heard it all, sexual sins can leave us wondering has anyone ever been this evil? Sexual sins always involves at least two souls falling – even consuming adult content involves the other parties souls. St Charles and other saints who wrestled with such sins and such temptations call us to stand strong – but they know the world will hate us.

Jesus prophesies about how Peter will die, being led away by people to a place he doesn’t want to go. Jesus says “let me tell you how you’re going to die… Follow me.”

Because of God’s incarnation into this life, this world, this time everything in our life – including our death – has become a way to follow Jesus. What we do now as humans (except for sin) God himself has done. Think about it: drinking, eating, sleeping, chores, even going to the bathroom… God has done it. It becomes a way for us to draw close to God. Death itself is our greatest enemy, but God has gone through death, ripping out the evil of it and turning it inside out. What was the end is now the beginning and can thus continue to follow him.

Charles Lwanga and his companions followed Jesus to their death rather than give in to lust – their own or the King’s. Today we celebrate giving in to lust or even becoming identified with it. May St Charles pray that we can turn back from it and even lead others away from it. Even when it marks us as enemies of the reigning king or the entire world.

If you feed and shepherd God’s people (because of love) the world will not like you. You will die. Follow Jesus.

What’s Love Got To Do With It (2)

JMJ

ST THOMAS AQUINAS says that God is the one in whom essence and existence are the same. “Ipsum Esse Subsistens” (Summa Theologiae, I, q. 4, a. 2) is the phrase in Latin. It’s part of a larger discussion where St Thomas is discussing the absolute simplicity of God: there is no part or “smaller portion” of God. God is infinity and there is no “smaller infinity”. God’s being and essence, God’s action, God’s will, it’s all one. Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One. I’m not a mystic that can elaborate on this, but it’s important to hold this one fact: God is totally, ultimately, unity. In God his “beingness”, if you’ll pardon the neologism, is his act of being. Being and Beingness are the same in God. This quality has the singularly euphonious name of “Aeseity“. Among the Eastern Church Fathers, St Gregory of Nyssa uses the term Αὐτουσία autousia which sometimes gets rendered as unchanging, but parses out into “self (auto) essence (usia)”. Since we’re using verbs here, I hope it’s not too far to render this as self-essencing and to want to say “Tom, meet Greg…”.

Because God is the act of being all things that “be” are somehow sustained by God in that being. We have no power to “be” in ourselves. Our beingness is sustained by God. Please note that that does not make us part of God. As I noted above, God is simple, infinity, and unified. We are neither unified, simple, nor infinite. We are not God nor part of God. We do not participate in the Divinity of God. But our act of being is not from us: it requires God’s action at every moment. It’s not only that God willed for you to come into being in your mother’s womb. God is actively, continually, willing your ongoing being. As Christians, we believe your life is eternal and so – even in purgatory, hell, or heaven – your existence is sustained by God’s active will. You are because God is.

  • What is that being? We’ve already drawn all the lines over the course of three posts so let’s review:
  • God is love expressed as self-gift (kenosis).
  • That love, on the human scale, can be best expressed in the love between husband and wife. It is physical and spiritual self-gift.
  • God’s being (love) is the root cause of all the beingness in creation because all being is sustained by God’s active will.
  • That love is you. Your fullness of being is expressed in kenotic love.

You come into being as the image of God (Father, Son, Holy Spirit) whose jam is kenosis. God’s love. That’s the fire that draws you into being, holds you, propels you, and calls you forward deeper into God. When Abba Joseph says, “Become wholly fire” the fire he means is love. When Third Day sings about being a “Soul on Fire” the fire they mean is love. When you exist, when you eat a steak, when you dance with your spouse, when you give away yourself fully: the fire you feel is love.

You are the image and likeness of a God who is love. Your very beingness is this love. This has some implications.

Morality is about kenosis. We’re used to thinking about lists of rules. Did I break or keep a rule? Even very “progressive” morality is about rules: did you use the correct pronoun or recycle/compost bin? Did you break a rule when you voted? We are all very legalistic. But if the source of beingness is kenotic love then actions that thwart this self-gift are intrinsically disordered, they are contrary to the reality of our beingness – not just in the first person, but for all beings. When you take an action or attitude that moves away from self-gift, you cut off not only yourself from God’s love (being) but also all around you who would have received that life mediated through your properly-ordered actions.

Depending on our gifts we might each see this problem most clearly in different areas. But it applies to all areas we think of as morality, sin, ethics, and the common good.

On the “lighter side” of this is talking as giving. One common piece of feedback I have received in work evaluations as an adult is that I do not speak enough in meetings. I’ve had to struggle with this including discussing it with therapists and clergy. It seems it’s related to being one of the “smart kids” in school, coupled with having poor filters, or maybe being “on the spectrum” somewhat – although we did not use that language in the 1970s, nor have I any diagnosis to back that up. Anyway, in school, I always knew the answers. My reading comprehension was several grades above my peers (12 grade reading in 4th grade). The only thing I could not do (and still cannot do very well), was spell! I remember once asking a teacher how to spell the word “of” because I kept trying to write it with the v and I knew that was wrong. The result of this loquacity was that some kids always commented on it in a negative way. I got beat up and called names because of it. And so I learned just to shut up and lay low in class. I kept getting good grades on tests and things and so that was okay. I carried this into adulthood where I just did my job as well as I could and tried not to get beat up. As a result, I never had the opportunity to develop filters or social skills so when I spoke out about anything it was awkward and sometimes painful for others. Shutting up was generally better than not. Yet the feedback given to me by supervisors was always along the lines of asking me to share my knowledge with others. Holding in my knowledge was not helping others do their jobs to the best of their abilities nor allowing them to benefit from my experience. Working on this issue has been one of the more rewarding parts of deciding to grow up – helping me not only to see my value but also to learn not to be awkward in communication.

We do not get to decide what is self-gift. We are entirely dependent on God. Jesus says the Son can only do what he sees the Father doing (John 5:19). We rest, like the beloved disciple at the Last Supper, against the bosom of the Son. Our gaze is thus toward the Father. Jesus calls us friends (John 15:15). As CS Lewis notes in The Four Loves, “Lovers are normally face to face, absorbed in each other; Friends, side by side, absorbed in some common interest.” With the Son as our Friend, we gaze, side by side, toward the Father. We, too, can only do what we see the Father doing. It is not possible to call “self-gift” what the Father refuses to accept.

By way of something a bit more weighty, our choices in the area of sex are often failures in kenosis even though we try to convince ourselves otherwise. The use of sex as a method of self-gratification is such an example: any removal of sex from its divine telos is disordered to selfishness. We’re not giving our full self, others do not benefit fully. As I noted in my earlier post: letting someone else go to hell is not loving them. All sexual sins involve the loss of (at least) two souls. When we cut ourselves off from self-gift we do the same for those around us. When, in our pride, we imagine we’ve come up with a new definition of “self-gift” we’re making ourselves out to be wiser than God, we pretend – in error – that we are “self-essencing” (Αὐτουσία) and thus we cut ourselves off from the stream of beingness that is God. We no longer mediate life to others.

Self-gift is what we are born to do. This is what God does (even when we turn away) and we are called to do the same thing. As U2 says, “give yourself away, and you give, and you give, and you give”. It’s not important if the other person is “deserving” or even thankful. When Jesus calls us to be perfect (in Matthew 5) he drives this point home:

You have heard that our fathers were told, ‘Love your neighbor — and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you! Then you will become children of your Father in heaven. For he makes his sun shine on good and bad people alike, and he sends rain to the righteous and the unrighteous alike. What reward do you get if you love only those who love you? Why, even tax-collectors do that! And if you are friendly only to your friends, are you doing anything out of the ordinary? Even the Goyim do that! Therefore, be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect.

Matthew 5:45-48 (CJB)

Engaging in this kenotic love makes us like God, makes the Divine Fire in us shine forth. It is evangelistic in that it brings others to see God. “In the same way, let your light shine before people, so that they may see the good things you do and praise your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:16). This is what makes us fully human. Anything less is to miss the mark and fall short of the kingdom of God.

Repent, then, and believe the Gospel! That is, give yourself away: pour out yourself as fully as God does because the divine fire within you is infinite. Your self-ness comes from God and the more you pour out the more you will have to give away. To believe – to act in trust on what God says – is to say, “not my will but Thine be done” and then just keep giving. Mind you, I’m not good at this yet. But that’s what sainthood means: to keep going until this becomes all you do: burn with the fire of divine love until you become all fire. Many of us (most?) will not become all fire in this life and so will need to keep working on it by God’s grace.

We work through this life (and the next) with what St Gregory of Nyssa says is the one thing, truly worthwhile: becoming God’s friends. We come to see as God sees, to love as he loves, to pour out as he pours out. We come to share in his nature as Christ shares in ours.

7LW: Unneeded Substitution

JMJ

Today you will be with me in Paradise.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

St Mary of Egypt

JMJ

THE LIFE OF OUR HOLY MOTHER, Mary of Egypt is not well known in the west although her feast day is the same day on both Eastern and Western calendars. She is commemorated today, 1 April.

Her life is read liturgically in the Byzantine and Orthodox churches at Matins for the Thursday of the 5th week of Lent. In practice, this means Wednesday night of that week. Like many saints so well-loved, she is treated as family and called “Our Mother” and “Holy Mother Mary of Egypt”. 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, Zosimas, who heard the story from the Saint’s own lips.

What follows is not the liturgical text, available online. This is my own retelling. I heard and read this story often in the Orthodox Church, where I also had a chance to venerate a relic of St Mary. 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 her background. I imagine that she was poor because of what follows. She is not averse to manual labor nor does she rank as a very high-class courtesan. What she does say is that 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 marriage often took place at the same age, and in those days life expectancy was not then what it is now. Mary is not being a child here. She is a girl in her sexual prime.

Mary was at pains in the story to say she was not a prostitute. She busied herself with spinning flax, with basket weaving, and other manual labor, this suggests that she was poor because she was willing to do this work. 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 every September. Mary asked to go with them not for any pious pursuit and implying it sounded – to her – 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 she went to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem but 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 was not alone and it dawned 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.

She knelt and kissed the holy wood whereupon hung the price of all of our lives and souls and, most dearly, hers.

Then 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’s 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 47 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. After 17 years she had won her struggle, and then for 30 more years, receiving so much grace from God that she lived partly in this world as the Angels do in the next.

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 on the water, crossing 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 Dominican 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 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. Her story told me there was hope for a way out, there was not only the chance of change but also the grace-filled reality of it.

In the Byzantine rite, this Vita is read liturgically during the Great Canon of St Andrew of Crete at Matins on the Thursday before the Fifth Sunday of Lent. It’s a long text. Reading the Canon and this vita together makes this one of the longest services of the Byzantine Liturgical Year. (Only the Paschal vigil service with 15 readings and a Divine Liturgy of St Basil is longer.)

The last time I was appointed to read a portion of the Vita, written by St Sophronius, I was unable to finish when, reading this paragraph, I was overcome:

Shamelessly, as usual, I mixed with the crowd, saying, `Take me with you to the place you are going to; you will not find me superfluous.’ I also added a few more words calling forth general laughter. Seeing my readiness to be shameless, they readily took me aboard the boat. Those who were expected came also, and we set sail at once. How shall I relate to you what happened after this? Whose tongue can tell, whose ears can take in all that took place on the boat during that voyage! And to all this I frequently forced those miserable youths even against their own will. There is no mentionable or unmentionable depravity of which I was not their teacher. I am amazed, Abba, how the sea stood our licentiousness, how the earth did not open its jaws, and how it was that hell did not swallow me alive, when I had entangled in my net so many souls.

My friend, Fr A, had to step in and finish reading for me while I went to the corner and mourned my sins. Look, it’s a long text. I’m not going to torture you with it. But I suggest you read The life of our holy mother, Mary of Egypt nonetheless. Bookmark it. It might take a while. Prayerfully move through it. You may find some portion of your journey there. Or you may not. I don’t care what orientation you feel you have, or what your life looks like even now. If you find yourself somewhere in the middle of her story and crave, deeply, to also find yourself in the end of her story, reach out. Let’s see what we can do to help each other.

Pray for me at least.

Our Accidents, Ourselves

JMJ

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Substance, Form, Matter & Accident

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

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

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

Now, wrap these philosopical terms around a human person.

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

How then are we to live?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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