Collect for the Twelfth Sunday after Trinity

Almighty and everlasting God, who art always more ready to hear than we to pray, and art wont to give more than either we desire or deserve: pour down upon us the abundance of thy mercy; forgiving us those things whereof our conscience is afraid, and giving us those good things which we are unworthy to ask, but through the merits and mediation of Jesus Christ thy Son our Lord; who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, ever one God, world without end. Amen.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

An Open Letter to Cardinal Wuerl

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To Donald Cardinal Wuerl, the Archbishop of Washington.

Your Eminence: peace be with you.

I’m Gabriel Blanchard, and I entered the Catholic faith under the ægis of your archdiocese, though I've since transferred into the Ordinariate under Bishop Lopes. I have a lot to say and none of it is likely to be very pleasant reading. I hope and ask that you read it anyway, prayerfully, because it is deeply important. I am not an ideal person to write this; I have some seriously ugly skeletons in my closet. I am not meaningfully different from a prostitute, speaking to a prince of the Church. But given the role of the blessed Magdalene on Easter morning, I am bold to write anyway.

Here is a (partial) transcript of an interview you gave just a few days ago for the convention of the Knights of Columbus.
Fr. Rosica: You’re playing a very important role right now … It’s a moment of crisis, but it’s also a moment of new beginning. Tell me how you’re coping with the situation—your predecessor, we’re well aware of it in Canada, and the message of hope that you’re giving to your people, to your priests, your seminarians, but also to the American Church.
Card. Wuerl: Well, it is a moment of new beginning. Remember, when we had the first crisis of the realization that clergy were being abused by priests, back in 2002, we took a very strong stand. We created a charter, the Holy See provided for us the essential norms. Let me just say, it’s working. Right now, when you hear of abuse, when you hear of a case of abuse, when you hear of—they’re talking about things that happened decades ago, for the most part. So, the charter worked. Now what we’re realizing is, we need to have something that would also be a mechanism for when a bishop isn’t as faithful as he needs to be, even if the charge goes back forty, fifty years. So, what I’m suggesting, what I have proposed to our conference of bishops, is, we already have that statement of commitment we all did back in 2002. Let’s put some practical measures to it, to make it work. What I’m suggesting is, we already have a National Review Board made up of laypeople. Why don’t we take from our conference a number of bishops from different committees, to work with it, invite the National Review Board to join them, so now we have a permanent body; and if someone has an accusation they want to bring, they can bring it there. We now have two things at work.
Fr. Rosica: Well, what you’re dealing—you’re talking about the nature of the Church. That the Church is not only clerical, only laypeople, it’s this unity. Your diocese is a perfect example of that. Some of the most competent laypeople I’ve met in my life are in the leadership positions in your diocese. You’ve done that.
Card. Wuerl: But isn’t this what Pope Francis is saying. Pope Francis has been saying, we’re all missionary disciples … It doesn’t make sense: a shepherd without a flock, and a flock without a shepherd. They’re co-relative terms, they go together. This is what we’re saying needs to be done today, when we have—I don’t think this is some massive, massive crisis. It was a terrible disappointment.
Fr. Rosica: For all of us. For you, for me. He was a friend to us.
Card. Wuerl: So, we’re saying now, well, what do we do in the future to see there’s a mechanism so if somebody wants to say something about a bishop, they have a place to go.
Here is a selection of a story from the Boston Globe that ran in April of 2002:
Over the last several days and weeks, prominent church opinionmakers, including two cardinals, have suggested that the clergy sexual abuse crisis is a relatively minor phenomenon that is being turned into a major scandal by the media and others with an ax to grind.
Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick of Washington, for example, told The Washington Post this week that some newspapers are having a ‘heyday’ with the issue.
‘Elements in our society who are very opposed to the Church’s stand on life, the Church’s stand on family, the Church’s stand on education … see in this an opportunity to destroy the credibility of the Church,’ he said. ‘And they’re really working on it—and somewhat successfully.’
Cardinal William H. Keeler of Baltimore made a similar point … saying, ‘It’s really the news media of the United States that has made this an American problem. We’re in this feeding-frenzy situation right now, where the coverage of cases of 20, 30 years ago is being plastered in the headlines.’
This is not a good look for you.

It does not look bad because of a merely accidental resemblance between sentiments you’ve expressed, and the blame-shifting lies of a then popular and respected pedophile. I dare say that the resemblance really is accidental; but the echo of your predecessor is the thing least wrong with what you said.

Beginning with the optimistic sales pitch ‘This is a moment of new beginning’ is beyond crass and tasteless. It is the first smack in the face to the abuse victims whom you almost entirely ignore here. I say the first, because there are more, such as the assertion that this is not a massive crisis. Speaking as a survivor of molestation, any number of victims greater than zero should not be spoken of in a tone of dismissal. And for an abuse victim, I was fortunate. I was never whipped or made the subject of child pornography, and I could not be impregnated or forced to get an abortion. You can read about more than a thousand less fortunate victims of over three hundred priests in this sickening report just released by a Pennsylvanian grand jury; and that is only about Pennsylvania. This is absolutely a massive, massive crisis.

Your description of ex-Cardinal McCarrick’s behavior as ‘disappointing’ is an appalling understatement. He was not a disappointment; he was not just not as faithful as he should have been. He was a liar, a vow-breaker, a hypocrite, and a rapist, who manipulated men and boys for sexual release and destroyed the faith, hearts, and lives of an untold number of them. As a shepherd, it is your job to say that, in those words. Acknowledging the truth straightforwardly is your duty to them and to God. Euphemism, minimizing, and indirectness are harmful to the flock. Those who are recovering from the trauma of sexual and spiritual abuse need that trauma to be honestly acknowledged by Catholic authorities. Polite dining room language does not make the Church look better, and even if it did that would not make her be better: at best such language scandalously appears to, and at worst it really does, exacerbate the atmosphere of denial that was so largely responsible for these abuses going unpunished in the first place.

But then, where, in this interview, are the victims? You mention ‘clergy being abused by priests’ early on—I take it this is a reference to the fact that many or most of the victims revealed in the scandals of 2002 and later had served as altar boys and were thus, in the older and broader sense of the word, clergy. This is the only direct allusion you make to the boys and girls who were manipulated, coërced, lied to, molested, threatened, gaslit. All by people whom they’d been taught to hold in the highest esteem as the instruments of God. But you and Fr Rosica do find a moment to pity yourselves about how sad this was for you, having a friend engulfed in scandal.

This suggests a myopia that may explain why you see no problem with putting a group of bishops effectively in charge of an investigation into a habit of concealment among bishops. For of course, if you combine a group of bishops with a group of laymen on any ecclesiastical task, the latter will be expected (by everybody concerned) to defer to the former; and we know from the horrible history of your predecessor’s two careers, the public and the private, that bishops show a pattern of covering for their priests and for each other. We know it, too, from the Church’s disgraceful treatment of Frank Keating, the first head of the National Review Board, whose severe words about the American bishops led to his being pressured into resigning—which he did, but without once apologizing for or modifying his remarks for the last fifteen years. A bureaucratic, episcopally overseen approach to this problem is obviously useless.

But even from a purely practical viewpoint—is there any reason the National Review Board could not be made a permanent institution with competence to examine cases about bishops? The original draft of the Dallas Charter applied to ‘clerics,’ but was altered to say ‘priests and deacons’ in order to exclude bishops; why? Your Eminence speaks, rightly enough, of the need for fraternal care for one another among bishops. But that is not enough. Absolution without confession and indulgence without penance are acts of corruption, not mercy, and they rob the victims of evil shepherds of any scrap of justice. 

Additionally, I do not share your confidence that you ‘took a very strong stand’ and ‘it’s working.’ For one thing, the prominent role played by Theodore McCarrick in drafting the policies for dealing with abuse casts quite a shadow over this ‘strong stand.’ What confidence can the laity possibly have in a document designed to deal with predatory priests, which was drafted by a predatory bishop?

Moreover, yes, the cases of abuse that are coming out of the woodwork are decades old; that’s normal. Victims of abuse frequently take a long time to report the abuse, for a wide variety of reasons. Abuse nearly always involves a power dynamic, in which the abuser has some kind of control over the victim, so that reporting it is a very dangerous thing to do. The abuser may also have power over other people the victim cares about, and can thus emotionally blackmail them. Many victims are groomed and manipulated into believing that the experience is consensual, or that it is primarily their own fault, or both, so that talking about it seems like exposing oneself rather than the abuser: they may be so conditioned that they simply don’t recognize what’s happening as abusive. Victims are frequently disbelieved or ignored, especially when the abuser has any kind of public stature, like a successful coach, a popular comedian, a respected politician, or a prestigious Christian minister. A given victim might be subject to any number of these inhibitions; that so many victims do manage to speak up forty or fifty years later is itself a mercy and an act of courage. We will not really be able to know how well the Dallas Charter is working for decades yet.

As a shepherd yourself, this is information about abuse you ought to know already. It is Your Eminence's duty as a spiritual father, and to ignore or neglect it is sin.

But above all: words, words, words. Beloved, let us not love with words or tongue, but with deeds and in truth. It’s fine to talk about charters and propose committees and so forth, fine and easy and worthless. The words that matter most right now are not ‘We’re implementing a mechanism for anyone who wants to bring a formal accusation against a bishop,’ spoken to the public in general. The words that matter most right now, properly addressed first to the victims and then to the Church and the world as a whole, are these. ‘We as a body, and I as a member of it, have committed terrible sins. I am sorry. I hope you can forgive me for the part I have played in this; and that you can forgive all of us for our neglect and betrayal of the trust that you, and God, placed in us. As a Christian and especially as a prelate, I will do whatever I can to make amends to you for the horrible agony you’ve suffered.’ Public penance from the whole college of bishops is called for, and public apology, and whatever reparations can be made (whether the apologies are accepted or not). Literal sackcloth and ashes would not be an excessive beginning.

This is not a time to rehearse how much better we’re doing, if there ever is such a time. It is a time to confess and do penance. For the kingdom of heaven is, as ever, at hand. Innocence, compassion, and the truth will prevail, in this life or the next, and if you do not surrender yourself to them then you will experience them as judgment.
The Lord, whom ye seek, shall suddenly come to his temple, even the messenger of the covenant, whom ye delight in: behold, he shall come, saith the Lord of hosts. But who may abide the day of his coming? and who shall stand when he appeareth? For he is like a refiner’s fire: and he shall sit as a refiner and purifier of silver: and he shall purify the sons of Levi, that they may offer unto the Lord an offering in righteousness. And I will come near to you to judgment; and I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers, and against the adulterers, and against false swearers, and against those that oppress the widow and the fatherless, and fear not me, saith the Lord of hosts. For I am the Lord, I change not: therefore ye sons of Jacob are not consumed. —Malachi 3.1-6
I shall pray for you. I ask that you also pray for me.

The peace of the Lord Jesus, the Good Shepherd who laid down his life for the sheep, be with you.

Gabriel Ian Matthew Blanchard
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Thursday, August 9, 2018

The Technique of Pardon, Part III

Night descended until there was nothing but a thin streak of red between it and the black line of earth but still he stood there. He felt his hunger no longer as a pain but as a tide. … There, rising and spreading in the night, a red-gold tree of fire ascended as if it would consume the darkness in one tremendous burst of flame. The boy’s breath went out to meet it. He knew that this was the fire that had encircled Daniel, that had raised Elijah from the earth, that had spoken to Moses and would in the instant speak to him. He threw himself against the ground and with his face against the dirt of the grave, he heard the command. Go warn the children of God of the terrible speed of mercy. The words were as silent as seeds opening one at a time in his blood. … His singed eyes, black in their deep sockets, seemed already to envision the fate that awaited him but he moved steadily on, his face set toward the dark city, where the children of God lay sleeping. 
—Flannery O’Connor, The Violent Bear It Away
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III. Reconciliation

Though truthfully, ‘reconciliation and its complications’ would be at least as good a header here. Anyhow.

The ‘classical’ form that reconciliation takes is for the offender to apologize and the victim to forgive, thus healing the wounded relationship. For the victim, the movements of grieving and compassion precede and prepare, as we’ve seen, while for the offender, the steps of repentance are confession (recognition of the wrongdoing) and contrition (apologizing). It’s rare that any act of forgiveness is so simple, but it does happen, and this simplicity is the center from which the deviations are understood.

There are several principal deviations. The first is that, because the victim is fallen too, it may be necessary to make an interior act of forgiveness many times for a single offense. Long-term consequences that an offense caused, the habit of rumination, a defensive ego—all can renew the wound, picking at the sutures of grief. And this is properly the victim’s burden, not the forgiven offender’s; for forgiveness, being a gift, can’t be snatched back any more than a Christmas present. It is part of our training in pardon. To be perfected, we have to forgive with our whole soul, and it is the parts of the soul that haven’t gone through grieving, compassion, and reconciliation that are rearing up at these moments. The call to renew our forgiveness is the call to extend our being more fully into it.

Another is the question of prudence. God can read hearts, but we, except by a miracle that he is rarely pleased to bestow, cannot. Which means that we are necessarily at risk of pardoning, and thus enabling, the unrepentant. To a mind properly formed by compassion, this is an upsetting prospect, because encouraging a person in sin is by definition harmful to them—yet, on the other hand, to refuse forgiveness to a sincere penitent is hurtful, too.

The general rule, I think, is to reconcile unless we have complete moral confidence that the offender’s request for forgiveness is insincere. This strong inclination to one pole rather than the other obviously doesn’t accord with the notion of the Golden Mean; and that’s fine. As noted before, gold is only pavement in the heavenly Jerusalem. Genuine repentance can come in some very mixed, very halting, very unattractive forms; it is not our role as Christians (that is, as those who have consented to live in an economy of gift) to reject it. The only basis for doing so is the authentic concern that doing so would almost certainly encourage a person in wrongdoing, and that will rarely occur, because near certainty is a rare thing.

The third, and in some ways the saddest, difficulty lies in wanting to forgive someone who won’t apologize. A person might not apologize because they’re not sorry, whether through ignorance and thoughtlessness or through hardness of heart. Or they might not apologize due to a despairing recognition of the evil they’ve done: when an injury is so horrible that it may seem unforgivable to the victim or to onlookers, it’s likely to seem unforgivable to the perpetrator too—so much so that even to ask for forgiveness feels like a fresh outrage.

The former problem, that of the offender not realizing that they’ve done something wrong, requires great delicacy to handle. It is possible to rebuke someone compassionately, but the times when we are most ready to rebuke aren’t typically our most compassionate times. I speak hesitatingly on this subject, because I am the sort of person who holds a grudge, prods and pokes at wounds. The art of rebuking someone without rancor does not come easily to most people, and certainly not to me.

I think—again I emphasize that I am not at all sure—that the rule to keep in mind here is that, to the extent that the idea of rebuking someone is attractive, to that extent we are probably approaching it in the wrong spirit. Not because we need to be terrified or disgusted by rebuke as such (we don’t), but because delighting in rebuke nearly always has a self-righteous and vindictive element. If what brings us joy is the prospect of the person repenting, rather than of their being ashamed or humiliated, then we may have a moderated confidence in our motives. If we don’t have that—well, we rarely, perhaps never, have totally unmixed motives. We can only pray for our motives to be made purer, and that the pure elements in them would be the uppermost.

Of course, we might, if we are honest with ourselves, be concerned that any rebuke we issue would be an exercise in self-righteousness. If that seems like a reasonable concern, it isn’t wrong to wait for our hearts to heal or mature further. The whole burden of pardon does not rest on ourselves.

Turning to the lattermost problem, that of an offender being too ashamed of what he has done to even ask for forgiveness, there is only so much we can do. If we suspect that someone is under this curse, we can tell them that we’re willing to forgive, as God Incarnate told us that he was willing to forgive and made the sacraments of the Church available accordingly. But, until and unless the offender approaches the means of pardon, we can only wait and pray. Pardon, being a gift, can’t be forced on anybody.

And of the middle problem, the person who has done wrong and will not submit to either confession or contrition? The offender who, on whatever basis, perseveres in injury?
Both must wish, and will, to be a part of an act. But if one of us does not wish to be? if we refuse coïnherence? ‘Ephraim is joined to idols; let him alone.’ If a man will be separate from the love which is man’s substance, he can; the ancient promise holds: ‘I will choose their delusions.’ Whoever refuses … it is difficult to see what else can be done except to leave him alone. If he shuts himself out of the mortal coïnherence, or we; if he shuts himself out of the act in which, more than any other, the mortal coïnheres with the divine or we; then that solitude is the answer. If it is he who refuses, and we have been sincere in our goodwill, then at least we are innocent there—if we have not supposed ourselves to be innocent in anything else. … It is a lame conclusion? a very lame conclusion. Mortal ones are apt to be; only divine conclusions conclude. Christian publicists indeed are apt to sound as if they thought they performed their moral duty merely by teaching it; it is easier to write a book repeating that God is love than to think it; it is easier, that is, to say it publicly than to think it privately. Unfortunately, to be of any use, it has to be thought very privately, and thought very hard. [1]
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[1] From Charles Williams’ magnificent little book The Forgiveness of Sins, which I recommend to anybody who will stand still long enough.

Saturday, August 4, 2018

The Technique of Pardon, Part II

Forgiveness can be considered as applicable in three ways: (i) to things which need not be forgiven; (ii) to things which can be forgiven; (iii) to things which cannot be forgiven. The first and third, put so, are contradictory; nevertheless, the phrases may for the present stand. … It may be objected that such operations, in many and many a relationship of love, are purely ‘natural’; they neither invoke, nor think of invoking, the supernatural world of which St Paul was thinking. So; but then the great goods do operate naturally. Where there is love, there is Christ; where there is human reconciliation, there is the Church. To say so is not in any way to weaken the supernatural: where the consciousness of that exists, the power of the operation ought in every way to pierce deeper, to last longer, to live stronger, than in the natural. … He who professes a supernatural validity for his acts must follow them out into that whole validity. 
—Charles Williams, The Forgiveness of Sins

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II. Compassion

When we approach the sacrament of penance, or indeed when we make any sincere act of repentance and seek reconciliation with someone we’ve wronged, we go through the three steps of confession, [1] contrition, and absolution. Confession means admitting that we’ve done wrong; contrition means being sorry for it and apologizing; and absolution means being forgiven by the person we wronged (done by God in the confessional, and by whomever we apologized to in the rest of life).

The technique of pardon (grieving, compassion, reconciliation) is similar in some ways. The first step, grieving, parallels confession: both involve recognizing and admitting a truth about the act that needs forgiving, and both are prerequisites to the rest of the process. The emotional process of healing that’s involved in grieving doesn’t have an obvious parallel in the steps of repentance, since God doesn’t need to process emotions—although it could be argued that the Passion itself is the parallel.

The second step, which is the counterpart to contrition, is compassion. Once we are healed and balanced (or even before that, depending on the wound), the next step toward forgiveness is to see the person who wronged us with the eyes of love and mercy. And this is the step which often meets with indignant refusal.

It’s hard to look with kindness, patience, or pity on somebody who’s taken advantage of us. More than that, it’s an act of generosity. Compassion cannot be extracted; it is a gift.

And that, that movement from an economy of debt and payment to an economy of free giving and receiving, is what makes the difference between forgiveness and the refusal to forgive. To accept God’s forgiveness is to enter the economy of gift. That is why gold is used to pave the streets of the New Jerusalem: purchase and wages have become as irrelevant to its coinherent, relational life as concrete is to our relationships.
‘I’m not asking for anybody’s bleeding charity.’
‘Then do. At once. Ask for the Bleeding Charity. Everything here is for the asking and nothing can be bought.’
—C. S. Lewis, The Great Divorce

The catch (so to call it) is the same catch that’s present in all being. Everything is double-edged: what makes it work, when we try to oppose it, will make it work against us. If we enter the economy of gift, we must enter it entirely. I believe that is why we are given the terrible warning that if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses: not because the Lord will withhold it, but because we cannot pick and choose how our relationships will work; we must work on one basis or the other, law or grace, debt or gift. And if we insist on the former, we shall have it—though we probably won’t like it when we get it.

How, then, are we to practice compassion when we don’t want to? Well, like every good action, it is rooted in two things: the grace of God and the assent of man. Even if we, I, find it difficult to believe, God loves to give, and he will not withhold the grace of the desire to forgive if we ask him for it. For that, we can only pray and, if need be, wait.

And the assent? that is, if not easy, at least not complicated. We choose to act toward what is best for the person that hurt us. We can’t control our passions, though we can pray for them to become better, and, if we find ourselves having a twinge of pity for the misery of the person that sinned against us, we can encourage that feeling. We can’t always want to forgive, but we can intend to forgive despite what we want, and pray for the ability to do it, if and when the time comes. The gift of righteousness that we receive in Christ is, among other things, the power to really do—however haltingly—at least a little of what he asks of us. And as dizzyingly high and steep as Mount Purgatory is, in both this life and (I imagine) the next, it does in fact get easier the higher you go.

The third step, reconciliation, carries certain complications with it. To begin with, the offender may never apologize (and that for a number of different reasons), thus leaving compassion itself yearning for a consummation it has not received. Again, reconciliation itself can require multiple efforts of will on our part, as the memory and the pain recur to our minds and hearts. And the question of penance or indulgence has to be treated intelligently, too. So I will leave those considerations for my next.

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[1] Unfortunately this has a rather confusing name—it is informally used for the sacrament as a whole, for non-sacramental and even non-liturgical admissions of guilt, and even for statements of belief; and yet its use as a theological term is so entrenched that intruding a synonym (could one be found) would risk even more confusion.

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

The Technique of Pardon, Part I

Then his lord, after that he had called him, said unto him, “O thou wicked servant, I forgave thee all that debt, because thou desiredst me: shouldest thou not also have had compassion on thy fellow servant, even as I had pity on thee?” And his lord was wroth, and delivered him to the tormentors, till he should pay all that was due unto him. So likewise shall my heavenly Father do unto you, if ye from your hearts forgive not every one his brother their trespasses. 
—The Gospel According to Saint Matthew, 18.32-35

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Yesterday I got back from Revoice’s first conference in St Louis. It was phenomenal. The mere sensation of being in a room full of four hundred people who all either understood from within what it’s like to be queer and a Christian, or had come because they wanted to understand, was so overwhelming that I had to step out and do some deep breathing, several times.

One thing that caught my attention was how often a measured and (I believe) godly anger was expressed towards the homophobic words, actions, and policies that have damaged so many of us, coming from fellow believers. I’ve encountered anger with Christianity before, but it’s generally been the clear result of an injury or string of injuries—which, sadly, is no mystery—and has had the haphazard, defensive, and unscrupulous quality of an immediate response to pain. I can’t blame that sort of anger, but I can’t trust it, either. The anger at Revoice, what there was of it, was different. Not primarily by being gentler or quieter; Matthew 23 is one of the angriest passages in Scripture, and came from a sinless mouth. It was different because it was reasoned, temperate, even calm—equity is passion acting in lucidity, as Charles Williams might repeat. And, startling though it may be to say so, I believe that an anger of this kind is very often an important element in forgiveness.

This is because forgiveness is so generally mixed up with indulgence in our culture, both secular and Christian. Forgiveness means reconciling with somebody who’s done wrong; indulgence means letting them off the consequences. And it is perfectly possible to forgive without indulging, in the knowledge that what’s best for the other person is, exactly, that they should be effectually and memorably corrected. A sex offender might experience remorse over his horrible actions and resolve to reform, but it might or might not follow from that that he should be paroled; indeed, if his remorse and his resolve are sincere, he might want to serve his full sentence.

How, then, are we to approach forgiveness, if it isn’t just letting things slide? The sacrament of Penance shows us the process from the penitent’s side—confession (recognition of our wrongdoing), contrition (being sorry for it and saying so), and absolution (being forgiven). But of course, when we are on the other side of the equation, these steps are not necessary [1]; and God, unlike ourselves, never has difficulty or hesitates to forgive. The technique of penitence, however little we practice it, is tolerably clear in outline. But what is the technique of pardoning?

I believe that this technique does exist, and that it has these three parts: (i) grieving, or recovery; (ii) compassion; and (iii) reconciliation. The first is concerned with ourselves, and the second and third with the person who wronged us.

These three things need not occur in distinguishable, conscious sequence in every act of forgiveness. There are offenses light enough that hardly any recovery is necessary; and conversely, there are offenses heavy enough that we may be able to forgive them long before we’ve finished repairing the damage they’ve done to us. But I take these three steps to be the basic framework on which quite different acts of pardon may be built, the center of the derivations.

I. Grieving

I’ve chosen this name for all of the psychological processing we have to do to recover from a wound. I prefer grieving over healing or some similar adjective for two reasons: first, because grieving a wrong that’s been done to us is very like grieving a death or some other tragic loss; and second, because Americans at least are extremely bad at this—we have a strange aversion to, even an embarrassment about, sadness—so that the idea could use some emphasis.

To be injured changes our universe, at least a little. Any change can require a kind of grieving, and injuries nearly always do. The essential parts of grieving, as I understand the process, are: acknowledging what happened; recognizing that it was wrong; experiencing the pain (along with the anger, sadness, etc. that that may involve); and returning to a place of psychological stability in the new, changed universe.

The trope of the ‘Five Stages of Grief,’ or the Kübler-Ross model, is not universally accepted, but it does touch on some of the experiences that many people go through in grief: shock, denial, anger, bargaining, numbness, exhaustion. These emotions have to be allowed their say. Wallowing isn’t a good thing, but repression does (if possible) even more damage, because when you simply tell an emotion No and force it down, it doesn’t go away—it’s like compressing a bag of water, the excess will just bulge out in another place; and when the bag of water is a person, it’s virtually bound to bulge out somewhere unhealthy. So that then you have to deal with the unhealthy consequences, and still go back and do the original emotional work you had refused: patiently and simply letting your feelings be felt. Not obeying every impulse you have, but acknowledging every emotion that this loss or wound has aroused in you. Emotions are messengers, and until their message is delivered they will not let you be.

It is very hard work to just sit with your feelings and let them speak. When you’ve been injured, it hurts to let your heart have its say. But one of two things will happen first: you letting your heart speak, or you dying. Not letting your heart speak isn’t on the table. It’s a part of you.

How do you get past this stage wisely? How do you tell the difference between listening and wallowing? Well, a tell-tale sign of wallowing is when you find yourself going, even slightly, out of your way to provoke the feelings of anger or sadness. That is emotional masturbation, and it’s just as sterile as the regular kind. (I suspect that part of the reason Americans are so skittish about grief is an authentic recognition that sadness and anger have their pleasures, and that these pleasures are extraordinarily dangerous, if not necessarily illicit.) I think a lot of it is just going to be waiting, though; waiting for your emotions to finish talking. All else being equal, they’ll quiet down when they’re done.

All else may not be equal, and the support of good friends, good pastors, and (depending on the nature of the wound) a qualified therapist, should not be dismissed. Even minor wounds often heal better when they heal in a communal context. But everybody has to find the solutions that work best for their own person, their own wound, their own context. A framework of pardon can be made of wood, but it shouldn’t be made of diamond: every person’s needs and graces are different; it’s why God made lots of people instead of, like, six.

Grieving is necessary not as part of forgiving per se, but because without grieving, we aren’t in a position to forgive. [2] There are exceedingly few people whose command over their passions is so complete that they can sincerely forgive while they’re in the throes of anguish; and of the ones that do exist, most of them got that way by hard, excruciating practice. God, being infinite, is always ready to forgive—yet Scripture implies that even our grief is an analogue to something in God, a wrathful or anguished love for his creatures when they sin and would (if it were possible) wound the boundless fullness and goodness of their Creator. Contrariwise, we are finite beings who have to call upon emotional resources in order to act, and are moreover trained from childhood in the half-unconscious techniques of ego-defensiveness against sins and virtues alike. It isn’t shocking that we have difficulty forgiving.

But this difficulty comes in two forms. One, the (for lack of a better word) obvious form, is the proud refusal of forgiveness, Milton’s Sense of injur’d Merit, the festering resentment, the unappeasable egocentrism, that will not pardon one who has blasphemed our great god Self.

The other form is less straightforward, more subversive, and, I believe, more responsible for the evil reputation of forgiveness has in our society today. It is to indulge—that is, to release from consequences—without the offender’s repentance. This is the parody rather than the rejection of forgiveness: indulging everything, allowing everything, pretending that sins don’t matter. In small social gaffes, it can be appropriate merely to indulge, but when you try the same technique with real injuries and injustices, the result is disastrous. It destroys the human dignity from which forgiveness has to operate, by implying that the offense wasn’t really an offense at all; in the name of being civil or kind or respectful, it voluntarily reduces itself to a subhuman status. Authentic forgiveness is a weapon against evil, overcoming it with love; indulgence without forgiveness enables evil, encourages it to consider itself normal or even positively good.

It is because this parody is so often represented as ‘forgiveness’ that I specially accent grieving as a necessary preliminary to the other steps of the technique of pardon. Naked indulgence reckons without the human dignity of the victim-pardoner, and to grieve is (among other things) to assert one’s dignity and humanity. Christians, who ought in theory to understand forgiveness better than other people, are as subject to these misconceptions as anybody else; the only culturally prominent exponent of genuine forgiveness I can think of is an apostate, Joss Whedon, whose depictions of the complexities of forgiveness in Buffy the Vampire Slayer [3] and Firefly are remarkable for their truth to the process and their intuitive comprehensibility.

I’ll leave compassion and reconciliation for a later post.

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[1] Not necessary, that is, in the exercise of forgiving the specific offense. We are virtually always sinners as well as sinned against, absolvers of our victims and suppliants of those who have wronged us.
[2] Ordinarily, anyway. I don’t rule out the possibility of graces that exceed normal human capacities; I mean, that’s kind of the point of Catholic Christianity. But our normal duty is to follow the normal way of things, because it’s what we encounter the most, and the miraculous is by definition exceptional.
[3] I’m pedantic enough that I feel the need to point out the Buffy clip here entirely misconstrues the Catholic doctrine of Purgatory: it is not a realm of directionless punishment (that would be Hell), but of cleansing and completion—a little bit like the Buddhist idea of bardo, where the dead sort out their issues that remain unresolved from life, though even bardo is less decidedly positive than Purgatory. But obviously that isn’t the main idea of the Buffy scene.

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Seven (Deadly Sins) of Nine (Personality Types)

The worst part of the joke (?) in the title is, I'm not even a Star Trek fan; I just couldn't resist the (barely) pun.

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I had coffee with my sister today, and at one point our conversation turned to the Seven Deadly Sins and their intersection with the Enneagram. The former, as everyone knows, is a device long used by the Church to explain how sin tends to work; the latter is a personality typology system, obscure in origin but remarkably helpful in self-work. [1] The cross-pollination of the two has led me to a much richer understanding of what the Seven Deadly Sins mean, which in turn has afforded me powerful tools for the spiritual life.

The Seven Deadly Sins, or more properly Capital Sins, are: superbia or pride, invidia or envy, ira or wrath, acedia or sloth [2], avaritia or avarice, gula or gluttony, and luxuria or lust. Some confusion can emerge over these; for example, why aren't cruelty or murder or blasphemy on the list? The answer is that these seven sins are called capital, from the Latin word for 'head,' because they're the fundamental kinds of sinfulness, the basic motives by which we sin. (To call them deadly is thus rather arbitrary; a better alternative might be to say that they are radical or root sins.) The attraction of the number seven, so often linked to magical or mystical concepts and corresponding to so many other groups of seven in the Catholic tradition, doubtless encouraged the use of this model in catechesis; but this list descends from older and slightly more variegated lists of sins, which are themselves drawn from the wisdom of the Desert Fathers.

The origins of Enneagram, as I said, are not clearly known. Sometimes it is connected with Sufism, but the Sufis themselves disclaim inventing it and their are Sufis who neither know nor care about it, so I think we can safely disregard that theory. Anyway, it doesn't matter. What matters is that it's a helpful tool for self-work, and one of the ways that it's helpful is that it defines each personality type, not in terms of external traits like astrology, but in terms of the interior logic of the mind. And that, in turn, means that it is specially well-equipped to identify the chronic weakness of each type.

This post isn't an Enneagram primer or anything, but the insights I've taken from that system have prompted me to view the Capital Sins through its lens, and I've accordingly seen fit to divide and describe the sins in this way: pride (arrogance), pride (vainglory), envy, wrath, sloth (accidie), sloth (cowardice), avarice, gluttony, and lust. Here's what I take each one to mean, in Latin because you can't stop me and then in English for clarity. Do note that my descriptions here aren't necessarily what the Christian tradition as a whole has consistently meant by these terms—they're simply what I have found to be most helpful in trying to understanding the operation of the spirit.


All pride is focus on self at the expense of God and our neighbor; but we may do this in different ways. One way is to be so preoccupied with ourselves (whether in conceit or self-loathing) that we place no value in anything that anyone else thinks of us. A person in thrall to arrogance not only sloughs off criticism, but despises praise—at best they think it no more than their just deserts, and at worst, they despise anything that comes from others as unworthy of themselves.


This is the other and more comical sort of pride, what we commonly call vanity or ego. This kind of pride desperately wants the opinion of others; usually it wants their approval, but some rebellious psyches will accept or would rather have disapproval, as long as it means attention. Unlike adrogantia, which worships ourself, vana-gloria worships what others think of us; it is a very sociable sin (though not necessarily a pleasanter one).


The English and especially the Latin names for this sin are extremely beautiful as well as solidly traditional, so I was reluctant to change them. However, envy in modern English principally carries the sense of jealousy (though without its specifically sexual connotations), and invidia is broader than that: it literally means 'an un-look,' that is, the evil eye. Hatred of others' happiness or malicious pleasure in their anguish is one form of invidia, but this sin is, more generally, distress that other people enjoy things we don't or can't. Shame, self-contempt, and self-pity, even when not combined with malice against others, are forms of envy in this sense.


Anger is a fairly straightforward sin to recognize, but its inner nature is less well-understood than its manifestations. The key to ira is that it isn't simply an overflow of the aggressor impulse—however much that may influence proneness to anger or our style of expressing anger. Rather, ira is the soul's response to what it has determined (fairly or not) to be injustice, when that response is allowed to run amok rather than channeled by the reason. Righteousness, real or perceived, is always the premise of wrath.


Sloth in this sense is indifference: laziness, can't-be-bothered-ness, the dismal flagging of desire for goodness and eventually of desire in general. 'It doesn't matter' is the lie at the rotten core of this apple of the knowledge of good and evil, a diabolical parody of the innocence of our first parents. This, in Dantean language, is 'Love Defective,' punished in Hell (or rather, just outside of Hell) by its perpetrators being forced to run after a mutating banner in a changeless ring, and purified in Purgatory by a superficially similar ceaseless race. In either case, I suspect Dante was right that only a moderated yet unpitying discipline can get through the fog of accidie.


This is an altogether different beast from accidie. Cowardice can know and even love the good, in a way; its flaw is panic. Experiencing fear is universal to mankind, but ignavia gives in to fear and pain when it not only should stand its ground, but has the capacity to do so; St Peter's denial of Christ was an act of ignavia, as his rapid and thorough repentance shows, for if he had been merely indifferent he would not have been hurt and horrified by what he had done. Unlike its cousin, this species of sloth can (I believe) be reached best by tenderness and patience, tactics practically the opposite of those appropriate to curing desidia.


Avarice—sometimes called more simply greed, but avarice is a better word because greed can signify many kinds of indulgence—is generally thought of as the love of money, or at broadest the love of possessions and status. That's more or less true. However, like wrath, avarice merits a closer look. Where ira springs from a sense of righteousness, avaritia springs from a sense of security; it isn't merely the love of power (which more properly belongs to vainglory) or of beautiful things (which is really a species of gluttony, as we'll see in a moment); it is an addiction to the, ultimately illusory, sense of safety that position and assets bring. 


Gula is generally thought of in terms of food. However, it can be thought of (I think) more profitably as a preoccupation with pleasure in general, whether the pleasures of the palate or of anything else. Addiction to pleasure—in food, in sex, in beautiful objects, or whatever else—is much the same passion and works much the same way, regardless of its object. Gula is thus a fairly concise sin, if a difficult one for the vast majority of people to resist.


The name lust is in some ways unfortunate: in archaic English it merely means 'craving, desire,' and conversely in contemporary English it has an exclusively sexual sense (which, ironically, the word porn can reverse, inasmuch as something that appeals to any strong interest X tends to be referred to as 'X porn'). Anyway, lust is normally taken to mean a preoccupation with sexual pleasure; and while that certainly exists, I think we must be careful to understand lust in terms of human sexuality, which is a relational thing. Anybody who really did enjoy sex merely in terms of sensations, and not in terms of human connection (or the illusion of it), would fornicate out of gula rather than luxuria; luxuria dotes on the connection, wallows in romanticism, perhaps worships its beloved, certainly worships its relationship. Lust places people before God as gluttony places pleasure before him, or as avarice places security before him, or as accidie places nothing before him.

The Enneagram, at least as I've seen it formulated, doesn't actually use these nine 'capital sins' to define personality—for one thing, personalities aren't defined merely by their characteristic flaws, and for another, I wasn't the one who came up with the system. But I think this works as an illuminating way of approaching sin when we examine our consciences, both in going to Confession and in everyday life.

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[1] Some Catholics are under the impression that the Enneagram is part of the New Age movement, or has been condemned by the Church, or something else along those lines. Given how nebulous the idea of 'New Age' is, the former could perhaps be true, but not in a sense that mattered; the latter is simply false. There are irresponsible Enneagram proponents out there, some of whom combine it with other ideas or techniques that are less wholesome, but in strict fairness the same thing is true of the Nicene Creed. The best expositor of the Enneagram that I've yet come across is Beatrice Chestnut (although Don Richard Riso and Russ Hudson wrote at least one fairly good book on the subject too).
[2] Also, in a delightful archaism, sometimes called accidie (AK-si-dee), or by its Latin name. Why acedia seems to be more frequently called by its Latin name than the other six, I have no idea.