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.

Fractal Structures of Hell

JMJ

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

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

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

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

And so back to Paragraph 1865.

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Mission, OP

JMJ

Always on Christmas, there is a sense of disconnection for me. Back when I thought I was going to be an Episcopal Priest there was the same sense of disconnect. My Family was hundreds (and later thousands) of miles away. My friends all did their family things. Later I discovered the “orphans’ Christmas” which was a collection of people getting together because they had no other place to go. It always seemed to be at least as dysfunctional a gathering as the families we were all avoiding. I stopped going after a while. We are meant to be with blood-Family, I think, on Holy Days. Family is the smallest unit of the church and it’s not replaceable. So while I can call home on Christmas (and I do) I miss the gathering of 65 people (or more) that were all my relatives in one small town – that was a Holy Day. All I have now is a day off from work with religious obligations.

So I was struck after Midnight Mass by a tweet from a friar calling attention to the Christmas Message of the Master of the Dominican Order. The Master hits on this curious point in the First Christmas story:

At times, we tend to “sanitize” the disturbing details of the Christmas story. The nativity scene in our churches and convents appears to be a tender and warm picture of a loving and peaceful family. But as we pause and ponder, we realize that it must have been extremely painful for Joseph to be homeless in his hometown,  for he could not find a single relative who could give them a room for the night, thus they had to look for a room in an inn. Probably, Joseph’s kinsmen shunned him for having a young wife who got pregnant even before they were married. It must have been terribly difficult for Mary to deliver a child in a smelly stable and then have a manger for his bed. It must have been terrifying to know that a king who feels so insecure threatens their newborn son and has ordered the killing of many innocent male children. The Gospel on Christmas day speaks about the world rejecting the One they needed the most: He came to his own yet his own people did not receive him (John 1:11)There is a “dark side” to Christmas. No matter how big or little they are, the sadness and emptiness we feel even during Christmas day is part of that dark side that we have to acknowledge in order to let Jesus, our LIGHT, shine through that darkness. 

Fr Gerard Francisco Timoner III, OP

I’ve never actually thought about it before. Our culture turns the Holy Family into Politically Correct stand-ins for political refugees, migrant workers, or homeless people. Then Christians fight over this reading. The Biblical text tells another story that will be far more familiar to any Christmas Orphans out there. In this story, the Dysfunctional Family of David tried to ruin the first Christmas. …[I]t must have been extremely painful for Joseph to be homeless in his hometown, for he could not find a single relative who could give them a room for the night, thus they had to look for a room in an inn. Probably, Joseph’s kinsmen shunned him for having a young wife who got pregnant even before they were married…

After St Joseph’s experience, the Church spent the first 300 years of her life rescuing not only lost souls, but also those who were rejected by their families: babies, elders, and the infirm who were abandoned on the hillsides. Families could literally throw people away. These are not just the “poor and the homeless” as we think of them today in our cities: these were the rejected, the broken, the used up. Slaves that could no longer to the tasks allotted them, daughters who dishonored their families by getting children outside of wedlock, elders who were too sick and drained the family wealth, unwanted babies (especially girls), or the blind, the deformed, the mentally ill. The Christians went out to the edges of the city and brought these folks in, healed them, raised the babies, comforted the dying. In this way, the Church evangelized literally by action: the religion of your Pater Familias abandoned you to die on the hillside. The religion of your rescuers told them to love and told you to forgive. The early Church didn’t ask these folks to change as the price of admission to love (as Roman Paganism did) but rather these folks changed their lives as a result of the love they experienced from God through the Church.

Pope Francis calls us “to the peripheries”. Speaking before he was elected Pope, then-Cardinal Bergolio said:

The Church is called to come out of herself and to go to the peripheries, not only geographically, but also the existential peripheries: the mystery of sin, of pain, of injustice, of ignorance and indifference to religion, of intellectual currents, and of all misery.

Today on the peripheries we might better think of our homeless encampments as more of the same: adding drug addiction and even prostitution to the list of ways that men and women might end up on this list of Unwanted Family. When I read a newspaper story earlier this year about the Homeless of San Francisco, I was surprised by how many of them had family – but couldn’t go to them.

So, not just peripheries of geography (are there any peripheries there any more?) but the Church also has a mission to the peripheries of sociology.

Many of the homeless men and women in my neighborhood are rejected by their families for issues around sexual morality. This is especially true of the youth. I wish it were not the case, but “Get out of my house…” seems a horribly common thing for religious parents to say to their children. How are we supposed to act, as Christians, in this case? I know there are some who want to use this sort of story as an argument for changing the Church’s teachings. Sed Contra, I see it as a chance to enforce the Church’s teachings on charity, love of family, and mercy. We should make it a mission of the Church to welcome in those who are shunned and even shamed by their families.

One Christmas, after Midnight Mass at the Episcopal Cathedral of St John the Divine in NYC, I went down to what I used to call “My Parish” in Greenwich Village. If you go into any gay bar you will find men who are angry at the Church. But on Christmas you’ll find something else entirely. In NYC the bars close at 4AM, but by 2AM on Christmas morning you’ll find the real orphans: the men who have no “orphan Christmas party” to go to, who have no other place to be, who are lost. When I walked into Ty’s the only people in there were the Bartender (he had a home to go to, but he was at work…) and a drag queen who was in “boy drag” as the saying goes, sitting all alone. The bartender greeted me warmly, gave me a drink (4 actually) without charging me and left me to chat with the other patron as he went about cleaning up. We were watching Bing Crosby’s White Christmas.

It was all chitchat. We sang along to the movie. I shared about Mass and the guy remembered St John the Divine and commented on the beauty there. And he grew wistful talking about fond memories. There’s no religious conversion here, but when I moved away from NYC, I got a going-way card from the man who thanked me for that night of friendship in a bar when it was very dark in his life. Sometimes, that’s all that’s needed.

Let me point in another direction: as many of our parishes become rest homes for aging members of the over 6os set, who wish to be unchallenged in their cultural hegemony, we should realize the peripheries also contain Techies and other Millenials who are very successful in the world but, for exactly that reason, are disconnected from their families and any social structures. Many of them lack the social sense even needed to recognize the need for religion in their life. But they need God as much as anyone. I mentioned this once to an Parish Council as was greeted by stony silence. These folks need Jesus, too.

Fr Timoner points out that “Christmas is not just a celebration but a mission.” We each have missions, of course, but the Church’s special mission has been outreach – we go beyond. Beyond the boundaries of the Jewish People, she embraced the gentiles. In Roman culture, she embraced the outcasts. She reached out to the Barbarians – the enemies of the Roman State. She embraced other cultures and peoples at every turn.

This is the Church needed today. This is the Church we have, to be honest, even though there are some who try to deny this along the lines fear of the Other in all forms: race, nationalism, populism, and sexual morality. We have forgotten again that the way to bring folks in is not to demand they change as the price of admission, but rather to let them change as a result of being loved. “…[T]he mystery of sin, of pain, of injustice, of ignorance and indifference to religion, of intellectual currents, and of all misery” lives on the edges of our lives: usually just outside of our doors or in the discard pile of our social media.

Can the Church reach out in these directions: on the one hand to the lost, the marginalized, and on the other hand to the folks who seem to reject us as quaint and old fashioned? Again, the interesting point is that from a societal, political point of view, each of these groups is “successful” in some very worldly ways. But how can they find the Gospel unless they hear it first, and how will they hear it unless it is preached?

Not According To

I’ve been thinking about rule books today, viz sex and the church.

There’s only two books: The Church’s Rules and Not the Church’s Rules, although the latter comes in several various, often unique editions. Many people outside the Church use their favorite version of the Not the Church’s Rules. And I’m ok with that: I don’t expect people who are playing Baseball to follow the rules of College Football. I don’t expect NASCAR to follow the rules of Lawn Darts, and I don’t expect people to play Pinochle following the rules of Spit and Malice. People outside the Church are not expected to follow The Church’s Rules. But inside the Church now…

My journey began with a jettisoning of The Church’s Rules and the discovery of Not the Church’s Rules in a college youth group at a retreat center in upstate New York, in the winter of 1982-1983. Prior to that time, I’d worked really hard at using the same rule book everyone used for ever. From that point on, I tried to play by Not the Church’s Rules while staying inside the Church in various ways until, late in 1988 or so. Things were very odd., let me tell you. You can’t play golf without the right set of rules. Even croquet is not close enough to golf to let you play the same game.

So I decided the problem was I was using Not the Church’s Rules inside the Church: I left the Church. Cuz Not the Church’s Rules let me be me. And I was having fun. I was kinda ok, for nearly ten years. But oddly, whilst having fun, something was missing.

So, for a brief time, I tried again to play Not the Church’s Rules inside the church… but then I decided I actually wasn’t in the church since everyone was playing by Not the Church’s Rules in sex, in theology, in Bible, in economic culture… didn’t matter.

So I went and joined the Church.

But I still tried to play Not the Church’s Rules.

And… Still didn’t work.

So I left the Church again.

This cycle continued, unabated, until rather recently in Salvation History. I decided that maybe – just maybe – I needed to try the one thing I’d not tried at all: Being in the Church and playing by The Church’s Rules.

At no point in here did I think I needed to make the Church jettison her Rule Book: but I tried pretty much every version of not-following that book I could come up with. I finally decided that getting rid of one part of the Rule Book made all the other parts of the same book (Fiscal, Moral, Theological, Sacramental) as weak as possible, until it was easy to tear them out too.

When you’re left with the Church’s Empty Binder of Nothingness, oddly, you don’t have Church any more either.

This is why hearing folks trying to force the Church play by Not the Church’s Rule Book makes me really, really nervous, annoyed, sometimes angry. Then I remember the Church has stood up to people who were trying to kill her over that Rule Book for two millennia. So I’m ok with waiting this round out.

She always wins.

Book Meditation: Why I Don’t Call Myself Gay (Part 2)

This is part 2, thinking about Daniel C. Mattson’s Why I Don’t Call Myself Gay. For part 1, now see here.

Parts 3, 4 and 5 of Mattson’s book move in a wide arc from theology to friendship, from love to loneliness. There are ample quotes from his journals, and there are odd moments where I nearly threw the book across the room (and, especially, two places where I wrote “no” in the margins).

Part 3, How to Run the Race: Living Out the Daily Battle for Chastity, saddles up along side part 1 as the best sections of the book, most especially the chapter entitled “The Wisdom and Example of the Saints.” I need to know very little about how they teach gender theory to kindergartners (which is covered in the blogger-voiced part 2) but I need to know a lot more about the saints! This section, citing saints from Cyprian of Antioch and Basil the Great to Ignatius of Loyola and Alphonsus Liguori, is filled with encouragement, and acknowledgement that many of our saints were scoundrels, and not a few of them helped rescue people that make my life seem rather pedestrian. Lots more of this is needed! The Story of St Mary of Egypt, advice from Pope St John Paul, St Francis, St Benedict… St Teresa of Calcutta… there’s so much out there. That this chapter was so short and so good, though, points to what I think was a major failing.

There are no demons in this book; no, nor angels.

In fact, the book seems largely, psychotherapeutic rather than, to coin a term, nousotherapeutic. This follows in the footsteps of many a modern (pardon the language) Western and a few modern Eastern Christian writers who forget the Christian Anthropology taught by the saints. We don’t need Freud, Jung, or any other modern pagans to enlighten the teachings of a Liguori or Loyola. This school of thought seems to treat our temptations as, largely, a psychological issue, and hardly at all as a spiritual malady; always addressed in a mental rather than spiritual way, as in a school of prayer. A good confessor or spiritual director/spiritual father knows that Psychology might get to the root of how this happened, but it won’t fix the who or why as effectively as a prayer against demons who inhabit spiritual wounds, who lurk in dark places in the soul, ready to trip or trigger us. Yet we like to sound modern and scholarly. Even the good Fr Benedict Groeschel in his brilliant “Courage to be Chaste” makes this a mostly psychological and moral issue, rather than a spiritual one. (At one point Groeschel even makes fun of those who used spiritual weapons without seeking a psychological cure, and so fell.)

Our weakness may result from fault lines in our psychological makeup, scored by parents, teachers, bullies, or ourselves. However it takes a Nephew Wormwood or Uncle Screwtape to bring them to full flower and it takes our own willing, human dance to keep them going. The verse that needs to be at the heart of every Christian’s struggle for chastity is Ephesians 6:12: For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.

Our psychological damage (real enough) or our culture, our nurture, whatever, is nothing until it’s taunted, teased, and bullied out into full on fantasy life (the prideful fantasy of an existence lived contra the plan of Life). I think the author gave himself too much credit in the creation of his mistakes, to be honest. And likewise, it is the angels on our side that help us fight the warfare that leads us to victory. Mattson does advise fasting, prayer, Adoration, and frequent recourse to the sacraments of Confession and the Eucharist, but the Church is filled with other weapons for use in this Angelic Warfare. In a how-to book like this there could be nearly half-again as many pages of prayers, novenas, listings of confraternities, prayer groups, etc. (Liturgy of the Hours and the Angelic Warfare Confraternity do get footnotes.)

In part 4, there is a wonderful essay on the language of “Disorder”. It talks about how we are all out of order, how we are all working our way back into God’s pattern for life. I find language of disorder to be liberating. This chapter gave me so very much support in that area! My mind was blown by the passages regarding the human reproductive system. I remember sex ed, where the teacher in Monticello, NY, taught us all the stuff about zygotes, spermatozoa, and all the rest. Yet it never dawned on me until reading this book the the “human reproductive system” is entirely split in two. It’s two three-piston halves of a six-piston engine. It’s an organic system in two parts. I’m sure that’s clear as day to readers who are married, but welcome to my brain. My grasp of the Church’s teaching (following Aristotle as much as Moses) that function follows form, that form dictates telos, that the shapes and meaning of bodies are self-evident, was just abstract to me until I read that passage. Recognizing disorder also results in hope – for order, for direction.

The passages on friendship were, again, autobiographical and I did recognize some of my own missteps. But the blogger’s voice returned here. The reader felt sorry for the friend (the pseudonymous Jake) who seems to have endured rather a long friendship with the author and also gets to endure it again in the reading of the book. I was happy to learn so much about my own mistakes, but I felt sorry for Jake that he was made to be the Example. (Unless Jake is a hybrid of several people…)

There was a chapter on loneliness. I didn’t identify very well here, so, maybe I’m not as introverted as I thought, or maybe I’ve just gotten used to it, or maybe I’m in denial. But alone time, for me, is different from loneliness. The author shares some very painful moments, some very jarring images of emotional pain. I nearly tossed the book away when he compares this to a story from a Nazi concentration camp and learning to “offer it up” for the salvation of the world. It was at that point in reading that I began to wonder uncharitably if there would ever be a spiritual cure here.

Today (Thursday, as I write), coincidentally, I listened to a Byzantine Catholic priest in a podcast talk about getting away from his loneliness by taking all the money in his wallet and buying McDonalds gift cards and giving them away to strangers on the street. I remember a priest in confession telling me to get out of the house, to go to the park, to just sit there and be with people. The cure for loneliness is love: self-giving to other people; to will the good of another. I feel the walls of loneliness closing in on me when I listen to music in my headphones as a way to avoid talking to homeless people. Open up, give, share. It’s the cure.

The author is happy in church, but he talks very little about it. It comes up in the acknowledgements, so I know he’s doing it! But the Church is also the cure here. St John Paul reminds us

For those who have no natural family the doors of the great family which is the Church – the Church which finds concrete expression in the diocesan and the parish family, in ecclesial basic communities and in movements of the apostolate – must be opened even wider. No one is without a family in this world: the Church is a home and family for everyone, especially those who ‘labor and are heavy laden.’
Pope St John Paul II Familiaris Consortio

So I think there’s a challenge here – to elicit more writing from Mr Mattson. He’s come so far, and there’s so much more to do! There’s the Rosary and daily mass, there’s mens fellowships and choir. There’s a whole spiritual side to this battle that I think he’s using that wasn’t in the book. I’m leery of over-psychologizing this: that’s the weapons of the other side. We have entire armies of majestic fear and disarming beauty on our side. Elisha prayed, and said, LORD, I pray thee, open his eyes, that he may see. And the LORD opened the eyes of the young man; and he saw: and, behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire round about Elisha. (2 Kings 6:17) and we have a cloud of witnesses around us. We are never alone in this battle.

I’m getting off track. I want to close with this other thought… there’s a temptation to cave into the cultural war.

Christians are seemingly aligned with one or another side of this war, but I don’t think that’s right. Our battle is not with flesh and blood. It’s certainly not with political parties or politicians. When we let our writing (about chastity, about liturgy, about whatever…) get suckered into the political sphere, we are in danger of losing our prophetic voice. There is only one illustration in Mattson’s book. If a random reader were to pick this up in a bookstore and flip through, it’s likely that that one illustration would catch their eye – it’s the rather controversial sheet explaining gender theory to young kids. Our hypothetical shopper will, likely, judge the whole book on page 99. I’m not sure that’s a good thing. I sold an article once to Touchstone Magazine. It became the go-to thing for a time, as far as SSA was concerned. It was edited to avoid the context of a then-recent Episcopal Election in Massachusetts, and turned into a full-on broadside against the gay movement. At the time I didn’t care: cuz I got published! But later, I regretted it. Once in awhile I used to get an emails about it, but they are all some version of “See, I knew we were right…” and I think, “I never reached anyone with this, only confirmed people’s hate.”

Preaching to the choir is much easier than preaching to the Areopagus. But the latter is what is needed.

When we realize that our sins are our own dance with the devil, when we realize that our family, God’s Church, stands ready to help us, we finally have very little time to worry about the people we used to sin with save as regards their souls. In those cases, Bishop Barron is right: leading with “Disorder” may not be the best thing.

Right at the end, I wrote “no” again in the margin. The author seems to be saying “this world sucks and as soon as I can get out I can get to heaven.” No. No. No.

A quadrillion times, No.

We’re here because we have work to do. We’re here because we have to work out our salvation in fear and trembling. We’re here because we need to love, more and more and more until that love becomes a fire that consumes us and we merge into the fire of God. We’re here to be the fire that consumes the world in love. We are here to struggle against whatever our passions are so that we can learn to love first, in spite of them, then, eventually, to their cure.

One Lent, reading the Life of St Mary of Egypt in the Matins service devoted to her (in the Byzantine rite), I broke down. Another reader had to jump in and read for me. Mary realizes she spent years leading others astray. Having made that realization she prayed for them and their salvation. I’m not quite there yet, but that’s where the road to healing lies. We can’t go there if we buy into the Cultural War language of us against them which pits humans against humans. There is an us, and there is a them. We are all the humans whom God loves so much he became one of us: them are the demons. Full stop.

Three quarters of this book was so good that I want more of it. I imagine the one-quarter that seemingly caters to “our side” in the Culture War will get quoted more, though. Stuff in the one quarter needs to be said, sometimes; but I think of how little anger one can hear is when certain clergy talk about sexual sins as compared to the anger I nearly always hear coming from people in the middle of this path. We need to wait until we can speak like St Mary of Egypt.

May she pray for us.

Book Meditation: Why I Don’t Call Myself Gay (Part 1)

TL;DR – Good book. Although I’ve some style issues in Part 2 and 4, all the parts are all engaging and thought provoking. All parts, too, are educational both in a spiritual way (if you want to be a faithful RCC) and in a “getting inside the mind of” way if you don’t want to be RCC at all. Excellent as a spiritual guide for the faithful, this book would also be a strong placement alongside other works with differing POV in a group discussion setting in or outside the RCC. 

Back in 2014, reviewing Eve Tushnet’s Gay and Catholic, I took issue with her ascribing a sense of beingness to her sexuality. It seemed to me that Eve’s approach was “I am this way, and now I have to live – still being this way – into the Church’s rules.” Reading with her filter in place, it was easy for me, from outside the Roman Church, to interpret all of RCC teaching the same way. My objection to this line of thought as posted in that review was:

I “am” gay because I like sex with guys as I “am” a carnivore because I love bacon. I can be a vegetarian – but I’d still love bacon. I can even be an “ethical vegan”, opposed to the anthropocentric use, objectification, and slaughter of other living creatures – but still admit that the taste of bacon is one that I love. I “am” gay rather as I love bacon. It’s fun. It’s a preference, but it doesn’t mean I am gay in my being.

My essential response was “I am Orthodox and a sinner.” (You can read: Review part 1 and Review part 2 if you wish.)

Now I’m Catholic, and it is largely because of a group that I met at that time, ironically, as a result of reading Eve’s book. I discovered that Eve’s tack isn’t really all of the RC’s teaching. This doesn’t surprise me: I’m a convert too.

This idea that one is gay the way one used to be considered male, or white, or 53 years old seems to be common. In fact in a culture where much of what used to pass for “identity” seems fluid, orientation is given an oddly concrete status. It is also rather recent and socially constructed – as people from Foucalt, to Paglia have pointed out. What we do with this sense of being we have, though, that’s the important part.

Into this conversation now comes Daniel C. Mattson with his wonderful and challenging Why I Don’t Call Myself Gay. It is the spiritual autobiography of a man trying to live faithful to authentic Christianity’s teaching on sexuality – towit, that sex as a vibrant and powerful gift from God, is intended to be rightly used in one context, and outside of that context it is not only wrong in a moral and spiritual way but also harmful to the human person.

Liber est omnis divisa in partes quinque.

The whole book is divided in five parts, but I’ll address the review in two posts. Here parts 1 and 2, then there will be another post on parts 3, 4, and 5. In defence of this division, I note that Parts 2 & 4 are the ones I had trouble with so that will divide these two posts into “some good/some bad”. And I do not want, in any way, for the discussion of the bad to eclipse the good.

Mad props for getting Robert Cardinal Sarah to write the foreword! In the front matter, the book raises a crucial issue: Cardinal Sarah and Fr Paul Check (writing in the introduction) both point out that we need a Church that moves along side of those who are struggling. Tushnet points this out as well. Two of my brothers in Christ recently punched a hole in my gut talking (also in two parts) about the compassion that Catholics need to feel along side these struggles (The Catholic Man Show, Episode 61, and Episode 62). A recent movie, called “The Third Way” did this as well. It does my heart good to feel not-alone, but fully a part of the Body of Christ in ways that mere denial or mere affirmation never allowed me to feel.

Part 1 is the most autobiographical. It’s the story of a boy conceived on the night of the first Moon Landing (I rather like that story more than mine, which involves the weekend of the JFK assassination, but anyway…) and who grows up feeling lost among boys and men who are athletic and jocular, easy going with themselves, confident and outgoing with women. His own sense of inadequacy was such that he got turned in on himself.

It continues with him sexualizing these feelings, and then finding ways to express those sexualized feelings. Once the feelings get sexualized, then it becomes only a matter of finding ways to express them.

It’s worth a read: I had the exact same experience. All the way through I was like “um, wow.”  And the same story came up again in another place recently, a film. So alike were Daniel’s story to the other story that I had to jump to the film’s credits to see if this were not the same guy! There may be a number of reasons for having these feelings, but “Falling for the guy I want to be” and then sexualizing it seems to be the most common one. It also explains why some men get locked into dating the same aged guys over and over again: that’s the age that one wants to be, wants to be for ever, that one keeps trying to “fix”.

There were a couple of places where my experience parted from Mattson’s path, most notably in his adult attempts at dating women (which I stopped trying to do in college – even then hurting dear friends). Also, I had the departure from the Church phase, coming back at about the same time as the author, although I only had anger at the Church – in a real sense – for a couple of years in my darkest occult phase. Still, the author’s stories of flipping the finger at a church made perfect sense – and I’ve seen others do it as well whenever they passed a church.

The sense of disempowerment in the World of Men becomes, itself, the driving force. Although Daniel is not going to get to this phase (or if he did, he didn’t discuss it), the inadequacy and downward spiral can continue, until – far from eroticising the men you wish you were like – you end up eroticising the inadequacy itself. You stop acting the role of the class clown, the jokes on me, look I’m about to swing a bat… and you end up playing the class fool: go ahead, beat me up, please.

I found this first part as valuable in understanding the spiritual journey as I found parts of Merton’s Seven Storey Mountain and for much the same reason: it underscores that no one has a unique story. There is only one story, with variations on the theme. In my pride I want to be the only one. But really, we all have the same story. It only takes the breaking of a rare few things to result in the same scars, the same inflection, the same inversions, as they used to call it. Reading this story though, was earth-shaking. Each moment of “What, you too?” was like a brick gone from my wall: not a loss, for it was never a gain, but still, an absence to be filled by Grace. When the whole wall is gone, then I’ll be dead… but it will be a pretty bridge.

The second part, though, I wrestled with. As a blogger I can hear the blogger’s voice. This is not a voice for putting thoughts in print. In fact if it had continued for much longer I would have put the book down and written a bad review never realizing there were other parts to read. To my mental ears, this part is Daniel’s “I was in Hell” moment. It’s his chance to say how unsatisfactory the gay world was. I get that. My experience though is this anger is like admitting one has had sex with an astronomical number of people: it may be true, but the left doesn’t care and the right only cares for the scandal. Yes, the idea of “Coming out” is all empty promises. But so what? This seems to be the part of the book written for other people – not for people struggling with church teaching on sex, but people who want to be scandalized or at least titillated about people not wanting to live that way. It’s the part that will sell the book to people who don’t really care about a collection of struggling Christians, but do want to feel superior to them. This is the part I imagine I’ll hear quoted in certain circles – this part and part 5. I’ll discuss this more, though, in the second post. Part 2 is not the longest part, though. I agreed with most things said, but it’s the tone. (I begin to think tone is everything in Evangelism.)

What else can a book about the sexual teachings in the Church be, but evangelism? As I said, this would be a good book in a discussion group with different points of view. But this book raises some interesting issues – especially in the “this is my life” portion. These are not all comfortable questions, perhaps, for the author. I’ll get to them later. But – vague spoiler – here’s where I think there is a huge difference between several sorts of books in this genre. They fall on a spectrum:

1) I hate this. I love God.
2) I hate this. I hate God.
3) I love this. I hate God.
4) I love this. I love God.

Each category then asks different questions. All four category can be written with one of four endings:

1) Yes-Gay Yes-God
2) Yes-Gay No-God
3) No-Gay No-God
4) No-Gay Yes-God

Eve Tushnet’s book falls into category 3 with something of a 1-4 Hybrid ending. Mattson seems to be a Category 2 with a 4 ending.

I don’t think that’s good evangelism, but it is a good part of mystagogy, the after- initiation teaching. Tushnet’s book was good evangelism in that it’ll get you through the door.

I have not yet talked about the title of the book – but the title is why I bought it. In 1995 or 96 I was getting off the N train at 42nd Street with my housemate, Ray. Ray was explaining to me why he didn’t feel a part of anything called the gay community. “Basically,” he said. “The only thing we have in common is what we like to do in bed. And, really, we don’t even have that…” It was a throwaway line that I ruminated on for nearly a decade. We have nothing in common. Wait, if there is no gay community, is there a gay? And all through college and on into adult life, I met well adjusted folks – most of whom were also attracted to the same sex – who said things like “I don’t want to be called gay” and “I hate gay as a noun”.

The fact that most all of these people were “Teh Ghey” – and sexually active, etc – but yet didn’t want to be using the word was interesting to me. And, like I said, made me examine my own thoughts, words, and deeds in this area. There are some that might say most of those folks suffered from some sort of internalized self-hate, but I’m not a psychotherapist and I don’t want to diagnose people based on my level of Psych 101 at NYU.

I did feel uncomfortable reading parts of Mattson’s book. There were places where he sounded remarkably sound, able to navigate the nuances of a person working out his salvation in fear and trembling. And there were places where he sounded simply hurt and angry. I found myself in those places saying, “I’m not sure what went wrong here, but you don’t seem to be telling the whole story.” Like in Seven Storey Mountain where Merton never comes clean about fathering a child… but notes his life was a mess sexually. I don’t want Mattson to do a kiss and tell chapter, or write out a true confession of his life, but the Bio Part seems a bit short, to be honest, and a bit light on the workings. Has much as I loved it, I wished there had been more.

That would be evangelism, I think. And it would be the blogger’s voice rightly used. It may also require a different life pattern – one where “This felt really good” was a thing. I think of St Mary of Egypt, really.  Although, later in life, she realized she had made a grave error – earlier it was not that way. And she was honest about it not being that way. I don’t think she laughed or bragged, but she was honest that the younger girl was not prone to really care about morality.

Daniel Mattson’s story might work for some while St Mary of Egypt’s story works for others.  I hope there’s a “Gay St Mary” out there… forgive my phrasing.

In the second posting on this book I will discuss parts 3, 4, and 5. Which I think are the spiritual fruit of Mattson’s labor in some ways – and quite well done in all ways.

That’s for reading – part 2 is here.

Disorder as Liberation

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 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 thee 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. Disorder is a sign of the fall. To find in 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. All of Creation groans under the situation caused by our fall: man was intended to be the crown of creation, the Primus below God. 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 points (our minds and our lives) are to be ordered – focused, line up behind, pointing at Jesus. When we say something is disordered we mean its 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 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, and 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. A disorder – experienced as an action or only as desire – is a sign that we need God. Knowing it is a 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 has a hit of lush, 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 the 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.

Neologism Alert!

Today’s readings:

  • Hebrews 13:1-8
  • Psalm 27:1-9 (Responsorial)
  • Luke 8:15 (Alleluia)
  • Mark 6:14-29

In the Douay, the RSV, or the NABRE

Propter iusiurandum et propter simul recumbentes noluit eam contristare.
Yet because of his oath, and because of them that were with him at table, he would not displease her.
Mark 6:26

King Herod and I share a birthday, at least liturgically: August 29th is the Feast of the Beheading of John the Baptist and so the day of Herod’s party and also my birthday. This story always resonates with me: the illicit, sexualized relationship with his stepdaughter, who is also his niece, the child of his own brother. The family drama of it all, pardon the unintentional double entendre, but I didn’t write this. It always reads to me rather like The Edge of Night or maybe Dark Shadows. Today though I think there is a payoff: the connection of this with a lot of sin.

At Courage last night we were discussing entropy: things fall apart, it’s scientific. It came up that the Evil One is trying to get us to dissolve, to fall apart as well: that is his goal. And there was a connection with this false self we’ve constructed and feed by indulging our passions, those sins that make us think they are really “me” when, really they are not. (How can I really be a sin?) So we create this false self, and by continual reindulgence it becomes stronger: it becomes the only me that really is left. I have entropically dissolved into my passion. In the end the sin, itself, becomes about destruction: courting death, demanding pain, ever greater and ever more. Repeating the patterns until they are only echoes of themselves. There is nothing left to be saved. I become my sin: there is no me left, nothing left to sin, and sin and me vanish in a puff of ontology.

Herod swears an oath of which he repents almost immediately, but because he swore the oath in front of guests on his birthday he won’t go back on it. In less than six verses in the Gospel of Mark, Herod creates a false self and dissolves into it in front of his guests. His evil is crafted by his adultery and lust, sealed by his oath and performed at his orders, even though he, himself, is sorrowful and wishes this would all stop.

How often do we do this to ourselves, missing the hope that comes from Christ: the hope that says by faith we can be made whole, the entropy can be reversed. “For he hath said: I will not leave thee: neither will I forsake thee. So that we may confidently say: The Lord is my helper: I will not fear what man shall do to me.” Yet we swore an oath! Our pride will not let us go back. We start a job and, even though it is immoral, we keep doing it because someone has to feed me. We obey a leader because we are Patriots, even when the leader, himself, is not. We continue in our lust for fear of what our friends will say. We continue to dance even when there is no music, because we can’t shake off the bugs.

We create, feed, and enliven a false self, a golem.

So that into it we die.

Who will save us from this mess?