Saturday, April 12, 2014

Holy Week 2014: Liturgies and Meditations

Tomorrow is Palm Sunday, the first day of Holy Week, which is the climax of the liturgical year. I'm planning not to write much from tomorrow until the end of the Octave of Easter (which in most Roman Rite churches is observed as Divine Mercy Sunday; it is also known as Low Sunday, probably in comparison to the spiritual height represented by Easter Sunday itself, and as St. Thomas Sunday). But I wanted to write a few things here about the fascinating character of Holy Week; I've included some meditative readings as well.

Also, if you're within driving distance of Baltimore, I've included the address and service times of my parish, which is an Anglican Use church, an unusual subset of Catholicism with a liturgical style that I cherish.

816 North Eutaw Street, Baltimore (parking in the neighboring lot at the corner of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Madison Street, or on the streetside)

Palm Sunday: Masses at 8 am and 10 am
Spy Wednesday: Tenebrae prayer service at 7 pm
Maundy Thursday: Mass at 7 pm, followed by Eucharistic watch until midnight
Good Friday: liturgy at 12 noon
Holy Saturday: Easter Vigil at 9 pm
Easter Sunday: Masses at 8 am and 10 am

Palm Sunday

This day is named for the palm branches with which the people of Jerusalem greeted Jesus, when He entered the city before Passover the year that He was crucified. It is traditional to begin the Mass this day with a procession, starting somewhere outside the church, carrying palm leaves (which are later collected and burned to produce the ashes used in Ash Wednesday liturgies, so that every paschal cycle is organically connected to the last). This is one of the few events that both the Synoptic Gospels and John report, John's emphases being usually so different from the other authors. The prophecy from Zechariah alluded to by Matthew, Luke, and John, which Jesus obviously had in mind in choosing to ride into Jerusalem on a donkey's foal, does represent a victorious king, entering the royal city in triumph over the nations that were hostile to Israel; the disappointed expectations aroused in the populace by this symbolism may have been part of why they so easily turned on Jesus when He was arrested and brought before Pilate, as is recounted in the Passion narrative (read or sung in differing parts by the celebrant, appointed lectors or cantors, and the congregation as a whole) that forms the Gospel reading for Palm Sunday.

In both John and Luke, within the immediate context of the triumphal entry, Jesus refers to His imminent death; in Luke, He begins to weep over Jerusalem as they approach the city from Bethany, and in John, He uses the famous lapidary that a seed must fall into the ground and die to bear fruit -- then going on in a favorite Johannine theme to say, I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me, identifying the Cross itself with His exaltation. That exaltation continues, of course, in the Resurrection, the Ascension, and the sending down of the Holy Ghost at Pentecost, but John consistently casts the Cross in the light of the first part of His glorification (an idea very much preserved in the Christian East, where the Christus Victor motif is far more pronounced than in most Western images of the Passion, which tend to emphasize the anguish). This to-us-strange concept of the Cross, especially when viewed together with Jesus' voluble grief over the city that would murder Him, brings me to the meditation I've selected for Palm Sunday.
The Church can reasonably be justified therefore if she turns the most merciful face or aspect towards men; but it is certainly the most merciful aspect that she does turn. ... A man simply taking the words of the story as they stand would form quite another impression; an impression full of mystery and possibly of inconsistency; but certainly not merely an impression of mildness. It would be intensely interesting; but part of the interest would consist in leaving a good deal to be guessed at or explained. It is full of sudden gestures evidently significant except that we hardly know what they signify; of enigmatic silences; of ironical replies. The outbreaks of wrath, like storms above our atmosphere, do not seem to break out exactly where we should expect them, but to follow some higher weather-chart of their own. ... Relatively speaking, it is the Gospel that has the mysticism and the Church that has the rationalism. As I should put it, of course, it is the Gospel that is the riddle and the Church that is the answer. But whatever the answer, the Gospel as it stands is almost a book of riddles. -- G. K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man, pp. 188, 190
Fig Monday

This day is named for a passage in the Gospels that we often seem to forget:
And on the morrow, when they were come from Bethany, he was hungry: and seeing a fig tree afar off having leaves, he came, if haply he might find any thing thereon: and when he came to it, he found nothing but leaves, for the time of figs was not yet. And Jesus answered and said unto it, No man eat fruit of thee hereafter forever. And his disciples heard it. And they come to Jerusalem: and Jesus went into the temple, and began to cast out them that sold and bought in the temple ... And when even was come, he went out of the city. And in the morning, as they passed by, they saw the fig tree dried up from the roots. And Peter calling to remembrance saith unto him, Master, behold, the fig tree which thou cursedst is withered away. And Jesus answering saith unto them, Have faith in God. -- Mark 11.12-15a, 19-22
There follows the lesson of having the "faith that can move mountains" to which we are so accustomed from Sunday school and refrigerator magnets, but, uh, holy crap, Jesus. You blasted a fig tree because it didn't have the snack you wanted? That's kind of terrifying.

I for one don't propose even to try to plumb the spiritual significance of this, Jesus' sole miracle of destruction (unless one gives credence to some of the infancy gospels, popular Christian literature that was not considered Scripture partly because they were too late to be of apostolic authorship and partly because they were ravingly insane). I would say two things that may cast some light on it, though. The first is that this passage from Mark, which here likely represents the history chronologically (Matthew liked arranging things by topic, and Luke doesn't mention the blasting of the fig tree), sandwiches the famous cleansing of the Temple in between the pronouncement of the curse and the Apostles noticing its effects. One of the prophets' favorite metaphors for Israel was that it was God's garden or field; the parable of the vineyard's tenants that follows within eight verses of the close of the fig tree passage in Mark suggests that this may have been an enacted parable about the unfruitfulness and consequent spiritual death of the Jewish religious establishment, represented by the Sadducees and Pharisees who would shortly crucify Him.

The other thing is, strictly speaking, not something that I would say, but the meditation I've chosen.
"For He visits the sins of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate Him, and shows mercy unto thousands of them that love Him and keep His commandments." Here is a statement of fact, observed by the Jews and noted as such. From its phrasing it might appear an arbitrary expression of personal feeling. But today, we understand more about the mechanism of the universe, and are able to reinterpret the pronouncement by the "laws" of heredity and environment. Defy the commandments of the natural law, and the race will perish in a few generations; co-operate with them, and the race will flourish for ages to come. ... Scattered about the New Testament are other statements concerning the moral law, many of which bear a similar air of being arbitrary, harsh or paradoxical: "Whosoever will save his life shall lose it"; "to him that hath shall be given, but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath"; "it must needs be that offenses come, but woe unto that man by whom the offense cometh" ... We may hear a saying such as these a thousand times, and find nothing in it but mystification and unreason; the thousand-and-first time, it falls into our recollection pat upon some vital experience, and we suddenly know it to be a statement of inexorable fact. ... The cursing of the barren fig-tree looks like an outburst of irrational bad temper, "for it was not yet the time for figs"; till some desperate crisis confronts us with the challenge of that acted parable and we know that we must perform impossibilities or perish. -- Dorothy Sayers, The Mind of the Maker, pp. 12-13
Temple Tuesday

This name commemorates the time spent by Jesus teaching in the Temple during Holy Week. The exact chronology of the week is a matter of considerable scholarly debate, but, if we take the liturgical structure as being as close to what actually happened as makes no difference (and there is actually a scholarly case to be made for doing so), then Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday were spent teaching in the Temple. This Tuesday would likely have been when Jesus delivered the Seven Woes to the scribes and Pharisees in Matthew 23. This would also, taking our theoretical schedule in combination with Matthew 26.1-2, be the day on the evening of which Jesus pronounced the Olivet Discourse, in which He predicted the destruction of the Temple and His own return, and told several frightening parables of the Second Coming: those of the Flood, the master and his servants, the wise and foolish virgins, the talents, and the sheep and the goats.

For the meditation, I have chosen something peculiarly Anglican in character. In the 1662 version of the Book of Common Prayer, there is a service specially designed for Ash Wednesday called A Commination, Or Denouncing of God's Anger and Judgments Against Sinners, which itself refers to the ancient custom -- which ceased in the Catholic Church when the Irish introduced the idea of private Confession and penances, thanks be to God! -- of imposing public penance upon those Christians who sinned, because the primitive Church was way hardcore. It is, of course, easy to slide into a judgmental attitude if we think too exclusively of the wrath of God; but it is profitable to consider it at times -- more as it relates to ourselves than to other people, since we cannot repent of other people's sins -- and, particularly, to note that it is always related by the Church's doctrine to repentance rather than treated in isolation. I have therefore put here some of the closing prayers from the Commination for reflection.
O Lord, we beseech thee, mercifully hear our prayers, and spare all those who confess their sins unto thee; that they, whose consciences by sin are accused, by thy merciful pardon may be absolved; through Christ our Lord. Amen.
O most mighty God, and merciful Father, who hast compassion upon all men, and hatest nothing that thou hast made; who wouldest not the death of a sinner, but that he should rather turn from his sin, and be saved: Mercifully forgive us our trespasses; receive and comfort us, who are grieved and wearied with the burden of our sins. Thy property is always to have mercy; to thee only it appertaineth to forgive sins. Spare us therefore, good Lord, spare thy people, whom thou hast redeemed; enter not into judgment with thy servants, who are vile earth, and miserable sinners; but so turn thine anger from us, who meekly acknowledge our vileness, and truly repent us of our faults, and so make haste to help us in this world, that we may ever live with thee in the world to come; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Spy Wednesday

This name refers to Judas Iscariot. Two possible etymologies have been put forward for the name Iscariot: one derives it from the Latin sicarius, a small type of dagger, and would suggest that he, like St. Simon the Zealot (not to be confused with St. Peter, whose given name was also Simon), had revolutionary leanings. The other, which I find more plausible on linguistic grounds, is that it represents a Greek transliteration of the Hebrew-Aramaic phrase ish Kerioth -- "the man from Kerioth," Kerioth being a city in Judaea. This, if true, would probably make Judas the only disciple who came from Judaea proper; the rest were Galileans, like Christ Himself.

Jesus' own treatment of Judas Iscariot is mysterious, by our standards, though it is very characteristic of Him. Though one could hardly ever foresee anything Jesus would do, one can see what He did do and think instantly, "Of course. He would do that." He specifically chose him as one of the Twelve, though He knew he would betray Him, and when the Last Supper was celebrated, He told Judas to do what he had to do quickly. It has even been suggested that Christ's dipping the bread and handing it to Judas was not only an inconspicuous way of answering St. John's question, but also a way of showing peculiar regard to the recipient -- a final expression of His special love for Judas before the betrayal was finally enacted.

It is customary to present a form of the Office of Readings (traditionally prayed by some monastic orders in the wee hours of the morning) on the night of Spy Wednesday; this form of the office is called Tenebrae, a Latin word meaning shadows. It's a spooky kind of service, and full of symbolic foreshadowings of the approaching death of Christ. It traditionally closes with the loud slamming shut of a Bible (or a similar sound), commemorating the closing of the tomb.

The meditation I have chosen is from Murder In the Cathedral, T. S. Eliot's magnificent play about the martyrdom of St. Thomas Becket, who was killed by knights loyal to King Henry II of England in 1170 for obstructing the king's attempts to interfere with the Church's self-governance. The priests of the church attempted to bar the doors to prevent the knights from getting in, but Becket refused to allow this. Eliot gave him the following speech:
You think me reckless, desperate and mad.
You argue by results, as this world does,
To settle if an act be good or bad.
For every sin and every act
Consequence of good and evil can be shown.
And as in time results of many deeds are blended,
So good and evil in the end become confounded.
It is not in time that my death shall be known;
It is out of time that my decision is taken
If you call that decision
To which my whole being gives entire consent.
I give my life
To the Law of God above the Law of Man.
Unbar the door! unbar the door!
We are not here to triumph by fighting, by stratagem, or by resistance,
Not to fight with beasts as men. We have fought the beast
And have conquered. We have only to conquer
Now, by suffering. This is the easier victory.
Now is the triumph of the Cross, now
Open the door! I command it. OPEN THE DOOR!

Maundy Thursday

The word maundy comes from the Latin phrase Mandatum novum do vobis, "A new command I give unto you." This command, to love one another, is the expression of the whole ethos of the New Covenant, as surely as the Ten Commandments were the expression of the covenant forged through Moses between Israel and God. The orders for the sacrifice which the Apostles were to perform thereafter had already been laid down ("This is My blood of the covenant ... Do this in remembrance of Me"), and the Sacrifice which would ratify its own representation, a representation that conveys what it symbolizes by being the reality it symbolizes, was about to take place. In the meantime, the new morality, and the spiritual grace that would effect it, were explained.

The Maundy Thursday liturgy forms the first part of the Triduum (or "Three-Day Thing"). It is customary to open this liturgy, like all Masses, with the sign of the Cross, but not to close with it as is usual, because the Triduum is treated by Roman Catholics as a single liturgy -- beginning on Thursday, continuing through Good Friday, and concluding with the anticipatory Easter Vigil on Saturday, which does at last conclude with the sign of the Cross. Liturgically, it has an oddly two-sided character: on the one hand, it is the beginning of the great exaltation of Jesus and is the time when the Blessed Sacrament was instituted, and in honor of these things the Gloria, which has not been sung throughout Lent, is again used in the Mass here; but at the same time, it is the very brim of the chalice of anguish of the Passion -- and this is anticipated during the Communion rite, in which the customary ringing of bells in honor of Christ in the Host is eliminated in favor of a crotalus, a wooden "clapper" that at once marks and subdues the elevations.

Maundy Thursday Masses end in a procession: the Host is removed from the Tabernacle, where it is kept all year, and taken to what's called an Altar of Repose; this is done in a procession, joined by the whole congregation, commemorating the passing of Christ and the remaining eleven disciples out to the garden of Gethsemane the night before the Passion began, in which the self-gift preached by Christ in the washing of the disciples' feet was preached to the uttermost in His death.
We live in the sphere of death; we can reach out in thought into the sphere of the Resurrection, try to make approximations. But it remains something different that we never quite comprehend. This is because of the boundary of death, which closes us in and within which we live. But we can try to make approximations. One of these becomes apparent when we reflect that in the language of the Bible the word "body" -- "This is my Body" -- does not mean just a body, in contradistinction to the spirit, for instance. Body, in the language of the Bible, denotes rather the whole person, in whom body and spirit are indivisibly one. "This is my Body" therefore means: This is my whole person, existent in bodily form. What the nature of this person is, however, we learn from what is said next: "which is given up for you." That means: This person is: existing-for-others. It is in its most intimate being a sharing with others. -- Pope Benedict XVI, God Is Near Us: The Eucharist, the Heart of Life, p. 79

Good Friday

The events of Good Friday hardly need elucidation. The liturgy is again unusual: it is the only day in the year when no Mass is said (a Mass proper requires a consecration of the Eucharist, and Good Friday liturgies use Hosts consecrated in excess on Maundy Thursday and reserved for the purpose), and there is no Sacrament reserved in the Tabernacle.

I've chosen an unusually long meditation, partly because I have so little to say here, and partly because Chesterton's words (taken again from The Everlasting Man, pp. 210-212) are so powerful.

In this story of Good Friday it is the best things in the world that are at their worst. That is what really shows us the world at its worst. It was, for instance, the priests of a true monotheism and the soldiers of an international civilization. ... So in that drama which decided the whole fate of antiquity, one of the central figures is fixed in what seems the reverse of his true role. Rome was almost another name for responsibility. Yet he stands forever as a sort of rocking statue of the irresponsible. Man could do no more. Even the practical had become the impracticable. Standing between the pillars of his own judgment seat, a Roman had washed his hands of the world.
There too were the priests of that pure and original truth that was behind all the mythologies like the sky behind the clouds. It was the most important truth in the world; and even that could not save the world. ... The Jewish priests had guarded it jealously in the good and the bad sense. As savage heroes might have kept the sun in a box, they kept the Everlasting in a tabernacle. They were proud that they alone could look upon the blinding sun of a single deity; and they did not know that they themselves had gone blind. ...
And as it was with these powers that were good, or at least had once been good, so it was with that element which was perhaps the best, or which Christ himself seems certainly to have felt as the best. The poor to whom he preached the good news, the common people who heard him gladly, the populace that had made so many popular heroes and demigods in the old pagan world, showed also the weaknesses that were dissolving the world. ... We have noted it already as the neglect of the individual, even of the individual voting the condemnation and still more of the individual condemned. It was the soul of the hive; a heathen thing. The cry of this spirit was heard also in that hour, 'It is well that one man die for the people.' ... The mob went along with the Sadducees and the Pharisees, the philosophers and the moralists. It went along with the imperial magistrates and the sacred priests, the scribes and the soldiers, that the one universal human spirit might suffer a universal condemnation; that there might be one deep, unanimous chorus of approval and harmony when Man was rejected of men.
There were solitudes beyond were none shall follow. There were secrets in the inmost and invisible part of that drama that have no symbol in human speech; or in any severance of a man from men. Nor is it easy for any words less stark and single-minded than those of the naked narrative even to hint at the horror of exaltation that lifted itself above the hill. ... And if there be any sound that can produce a silence, we may surely be silent about the end and the extremity; when a cry was driven out of the darkness in words dreadfully distinct and dreadfully unintelligible, which man shall never understand in all the eternity they have purchased for him; and for one annihilating instant an abyss that is not for our thoughts had opened even in the unity of the absolute; and God had been forsaken of God.
Holy Saturday

In a sense there is no Holy Saturday liturgy, strictly speaking. The liturgy that does take place, as the sun sets and the next day begins by Biblical reckoning, does not memorialize the time spent by Christ in the tomb, but begins the season of Easter. The peculiar character of Holy Saturday as such would, I suppose, be the Harrowing of Hell, a favorite subject of Mediaeval artists, but I know of no liturgical commemoration of it.

Here at the Vigil, at last, the time of the Resurrection begins, supreme among the mysteries. The singing of the Alleluia is reinstituted before the reading or intoning of the Gospel, and the splendor of the celebration is throughout the greatest of the liturgical year. It is also traditionally at the Easter Vigil that new converts are received into the Church; I was received into full communion at the Vigil at the Catholic Student Center of the University of Maryland in 2008. The Easter Candle, symbol of the light of Christ, is dipped into the font (where Baptisms are performed), uniting the image of illumination with the image of life. The Litany of the Saints is chanted: the Resurrection broke the boundary between the living and the dead, and, though we often ask them for their prayers, we place special emphasis here upon the coinherence of the living and the dead. And after everything is completed and our fast is changed to a feast, there is also a special hymn to the Mother of God, sung only during Eastertide:

Regina caeli, laetare, Alleluia!
Quia quem meruisti portare, Alleluia!
Resurrexit, sicut dixit, Alleluia!
Ora pro nobis Deum, Alleluia!

O Queen of Heaven, rejoice, Alleluia!
For He whom thou wast found worthy to bear, Alleluia!
Hath risen as He said, Alleluia!
Pray for us to God, Alleluia!

Easter Sunday

This is the day when Jesus began appearing after His Resurrection: first to St. Mary Magdalene, and then -- well, actually, then it's kind of hard to work out. If you were trying to remember the death and totally unexpected reversal of death of your most intimate teacher, thirty years later, you'd probably find it hard to straighten out the details, too. But it seems that the next people to see Him were the women who had remained at the tomb when the Magdalene went to tell the disciples what had happened, after which He also appeared to her; and then, the same day, Simon Peter and Cleopas (the husband of one of the unreasonably large multitude of Marys in the Bible) encountered Him on their way to Emmaus, a town about seven miles outside of Jerusalem, and when they recognized Him and He promptly vanished, they rushed back to Jerusalem to tell the others. And then Christ appeared to the ten disciples who were gathered in a house together -- St. Thomas being absent -- and then again, one week later, this time including Thomas, and indeed singling him out for what looks like a good-natured and really rather funny remonstrance.

The almost chaotic appearance of the texts of the Gospels relative to one another makes perfect sense, given the emotional roller-coaster the witnesses were being put through. (Thomas Cahill, a historian with an imaginative streak, picks up the traditional iconography of St. Peter being white-haired, and implies in his book Desire of the Everlasting Hills that the saint's hair did indeed go white due to the extreme shock of the Passion and the Resurrection together.) It also fits rather neatly with the liturgical custom of regarding the whole Octave of Easter, i.e. the eight days from Easter Sunday to the next Sunday inclusive, as a single "day." The Octave, recalling the Resurrection, is made an image of eternity, and specially of the eternal fact that Jesus is alive.

Call me a nerd if you like (it's not like you'll be wrong), but one of the passages in literature that reminds me so forcibly of this that I can't help crying when I read it, is actually from J. R. R. Tolkien's more obscure and difficult work The Silmarillion. Near its close, when Morgoth (an evil power more ancient and terrifying even than Sauron, and who was originally Sauron's master) had dominated all of Middle-earth, enslaving Elves and Men alike, a mariner named Earendil -- himself half-Elf and half-Man (in fact, the father of Elrond) -- took it upon himself to sail to the land of the Valar.

The Valar were godlike or angelic spirits, who had refused to aid the Elves in their war against Morgoth because the Elves had begun it with a murderous rebellion in the very land of the Valar, slaying their own kin; Earendil had no idea whether his plea on behalf of Middle-earth would be accepted, and doubted that he could even reach the land of the Valar, protected by deceitful enchantments; but reach it he did, guided by a magical gem that he kept with him, which had been filled with a light created by the Valar themselves, and of which the Sun and the Moon were in fact inferior copies. And when Earendil got there, he met no one: the city in which the faithful of the Elves lived was empty.
[A]nd his heart was heavy, for he feared that some evil had come even to the Blessed Realm. He walked in the deserted ways of Tirion, and the dust upon his raiment and his shoes was a dust of diamonds, and he shone and glistened as he climbed the long white stairs. And he called aloud in many tongues, both of Elves and Men, but there was none to answer him. Therefore he turned back at last towards the sea; but even as he took the shoreward road one stood upon the hill and called to him in a great voice, crying:
'Hail Earendil, of mariners most renowned, the looked for that cometh at unawares, the longed for that cometh beyond hope! Hail Earendil, bearer of light before the Sun and Moon! Splendor of the Children of Earth, star in the darkness, jewel in the sunset, radiant in the morning!'

Friday, April 4, 2014

World Vision, Mozilla, And Other Arenas of Insanity

In the best days of the Middle Ages trials might take place and tortures be both threatened and applied -- more often perhaps threatened than applied. But the cases of acquittal were fairly frequent ... [E]ven with Gilles de Rais, the spectacular scene of the Bishop of Nantes embracing the convicted prisoner shows that something of the sense of Christendom remained vital and active. ... But now all was changed. The Middle Ages had, as it were, abandoned that effort and dream of sanctity. The awful strain had been too much for them. They had learnt the great fundamental lesson, produced by all individual and social experience, that it is much easier, and in a general way as profitable, to blame someone else rather than to blame oneself. They had discovered that it is always agreeable to hold someone responsible. ... Contrition for sin had largely vanished from Christendom; conflict about sin took its place.

-- Charles Williams
From Witchcraft, Chapter Eight: The Grand War, pp. 174-175

When I first heard about the disgraceful controversy over World Vision, I mostly wanted to bury my head under my pillow and hum loudly until it went away. Really, guys? We're having this conversation? Did everyone do a bucket of meth while I wasn't looking? Eventually I fired off a pissy status update, in which I tried to take no sides, largely out of habit: I almost never feel that either side is unambiguously right or wrong in the kulturkampf.

But as I've continued to reflect on it, even my attempt to make allowances for tender consciences has broken down. I find it impossible to feel anything except anger and disgust, that someone would consider merely employing a partnered gay person such a profound moral offense (after all, the Bible and sacred Tradition say so much about it) that they needed not only to withdraw their support from children by the thousands, but apparently felt the need to be abusive over the phone to World Vision's surely quite helpless representatives.

Well, the conservatives -- if that is the right word; I was raised in a strongly conservative household and as a practicing evangelical, and I don't think I know anyone from that milieu who would have behaved that way -- anyway, whatever they should be called, they got their way.

World Vision: Faggot-free since last Wednesday.

Congratulations, I suppose. You have displayed openly to the word that the culture wars, which Scripture does not command, are more important to you than the feeding of the hungry and the clothing of the naked, which Scripture does command. And you presume to wonder why people hate Christians and call us bigots and hypocrites. When the whited sepulcher of social orthodoxy ceases even to conceal a heart liquid with corruption, such that it would sooner let a child starve than let a sexually active queer person assist in feeding them -- I can't write rationally about such a perspective.

Note that I say social orthodoxy, not theological orthodoxy. I believe all that the Catholic Church teaches, which is a good deal more definite and restrictive than what even most conservative Protestants believe. And nowhere in the teachings of the Catholic Church does it say that the works of mercy are somehow polluted by contact with gay people. Or, indeed, with anyone whose life is out of accord with Catholic moral teaching -- which is handy, considering that that list includes "everyone who does the works of mercy."

This is exactly what the parable of the Good Samaritan was told about. The point does not lie exclusively in the fact that the Jewish audience of the parable were prejudiced against Samaritans. Part of the point is lost if we don't realize that the Samaritans really were in the wrong, theologically. Their redacted Scriptures and religious practices were genuinely incorrect -- which Jesus touches on, almost as an aside, when He speaks with the woman at the well. And they were incorrect about the right worship of God, which was the center of the covenant that God had made with Israel through Moses. And it is one of them who is held up as an example, in contrast to the priest and the Levite. Translated into the terms of this conflict, one can see Jesus telling this parable featuring a gay, progressivist Christian who chooses to help the victim of the roadside thugs, while a pious devotee of the Latin Mass and a Spirit-filled evangelical preacher cross the road on the other side.*

For God is no respecter of persons. The love that flows from a heart that has accepted and made use of Divine grace is more pleasing to Him than the theological accuracy of a Pharisee. But ye have respect to him that weareth the gay clothing -- are ye not then partial in yourselves, and become judges of evil thoughts?

But then, as if on cue, the other side of the kulturkampf decided that conservative Christians shouldn't have all the fun in behaving like cowardly bullies and embarrassing their own ideals. And so Brendan Eich, whose crime consisted in using his own private money to donate to a political cause that accords with his beliefs, was compelled to resign from the nonprofit that he helped to found (which has provided a free, open-source browser to the public). I can't express it better than Andrew Sullivan of The Dish -- who, if you aren't familiar with him, is legally married to another man:
The guy who had the gall to express his First Amendment rights and favor Prop 8 in California by donating $1,000 has just been scalped by some gay activists. ... Will he now be forced to walk through the streets in shame? Why not the stocks? The whole episode disgusts me -- as it should disgust anyone interested in a tolerant and diverse society. If this is the gay rights movement today -- hounding our opponents with a fanaticism more like the religious right than anyone else -- then count me out. If we are about intimidating the free speech of others, we are no better than the anti-gay bullies who came before us.
Make no mistake: I don't regard the boycotting which brought about Eich's resignation as being half so reprehensible as literally pulling funding from impoverished children. And I am always disposed to criticize Christians more severely than non-Christians, because we have a special cause and a special call to be at once more just and more merciful than the world at large. What this move on the part of LGBT activists is, however, is juvenile hypocrisy. We of all people ought to know better than to try to get someone fired, or celebrate it when they are, on the grounds that their moral stands don't line up with ours.

I am a Catholic Christian. I am also an openly gay man. I was raised in the midst of the culture wars, and I have strong reasons to take either side. So whose side am I on?

Of course.

I am a pacifist; that is, in the Latin, a peacemaker. Or I aspire to be a peacemaker -- to stick with the Lord of the Rings references, I partly find and partly anticipate that the work of the pacifist is through the ages of the world to fight the long defeat.** That doesn't mean pretending that evil is not evil, or refusing to call a spade a spade; but it does mean refusing every form of coercion, making use instead of the persistent invitation to the other side, whatever that other side may be, to drop their weapons and be reconciled, and to begin by dropping your own and being reconciled to them for your part.

I am not a pacifist because I believe that pacifism guarantees the victory of my cause. On the one hand, my cause will assuredly fail and fall, over and over, because we live in a world that is broken, whose good is continually in peril of returning into its own evil. On the other hand, my cause (say rather, the cause that has made me its own) is already and perpetually victorious, because Jesus is alive, and all things exist in Him, and I know all things only in Him, for I determined not to know any thing, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified; and every evil is suffered in Him so that a good that is greater still may redeem that evil. Sin is behovely, but all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.***

More than that -- in knowing all things in Christ, I know all things as coinhering with one another; all interdependent, all sharing in one another for both good and evil. Physicists tell us that subatomic particles of matter seem to act upon one another at distances of light-years; so much the more do souls interact in intimate inter-animation, or, to give it is theological name, the communion of the saints.

The Church is Catholike, universall, so are all her Actions; All that she does, belongs to all. When she baptizes a child, that action concernes mee; for that child is thereby connected to that Head which is my Head too, and engraffed into that body, whereof I am a member. And when she buries a Man, that action concernes me: All mankinde is of one Author, and is one volume ... No man is an Iland, intire of it selfe; every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine ... any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.****
How then could I do violence to, I do not say my brothers, but to my own body? And if I cannot do violence to the body, how much less can I do violence to the soul? What adequate response can there be to the image of God in one's neighbor, except to love: to delight in all their good as though it were our own and yet more because it is truly theirs; to grieve their faults as tenderly as our own and rebuke our own as sternly as theirs; to cry out for reconciliation and mutual delight, rather than for my "side" to beat their "side"?

I refuse to fight in the culture war because I refuse war. Christ Jesus Himself did not come as a conquering king, but as one who suffered for His people. Those whom Christ loves, I love, and that which Christ does, I do, with whatever errors and delays. That does not eliminate violence from the world; but our Lord's own response to violence was to receive it willingly in His Person, and return nothing, nothing, except love, flowing generously out of His veins. His is the only side I want to take, and He came exclusively out of a deep and tender love for the damned. How then am I to refuse love to anyone?

"Friend, wherefore art thou come?"

I desperately want the witch-hunts and the maledictions to stop: whether it is Christians tearing at the gay community, and at one another, and at gay Christians; or whether it is the gay community tearing at Christians, or at one another, or at Christian gays. Whoever you are reading this, I beg of you, examine your conscience for your own contribution -- not attending to other people's contributions, which you can do nothing to prevent. And then -- whether you have done much or nothing to contribute to this seething cauldron of hatred -- assume responsibility for all; atone for the corruption of others with a return of forgiveness and love, because nothing else can put an end to this. No one could call this an easy or an attractive answer in the heart of pain. But continuing the mutual hatred only perpetuates the pain; it fuels it, because all revenge carries within itself the seeds of the revenge that will answer it, and the act of vengeance sows those seeds in the soil of the enemy's heart. Doing unto others as you would have them do unto you, rather than as they have done unto you, is, it turns out, an exacting rule.

I do not side with Christians in the culture war, because I do not believe in waging war upon non-Christians. I do not side with the LGBT movement in the culture war, because I do not hate my Mother, which is precisely why I hate the diseases that afflict her. Put down the swords. You might impale someone's body with them. You will assuredly impale your soul.

*I use these two examples partly because they seem to constitute a lot of my readership, and partly because they are fairly close to my own character. They therefore seem to possess the kind of pertinence that the parable ought to have, insofar as it is a challenging summons to an examination of conscience, and not a pretty little tale designed to make us feel good.

**"'Your quest is known to us,' said Galadriel, looking at Frodo. 'But we will not speak of it here more openly. Yet not in vain will it prove, maybe, that you came to this land seeking aid, as Gandalf himself plainly purposed. For the Lord of the Galadhrim is accounted the wisest of the Elves of Middle-earth, and a giver of gifts beyond the power of kings. He has dwelt in the West since the days of dawn, and I have dwelt with him years uncounted; for ere the fall of Nargothrond or Gondolin I passed over the mountains, and together through the ages of the world we have fought the long defeat.'" -- The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, Chapter 7: The Mirror of Galadriel, p. 372.

***One of the most famous lines from Lady Julian's Revelation of Divine Love, from the Thirteenth Showing. "Behovely" here more or less equates to something between necessary and educative, the concept being that, being such creatures as we are, we will surely fall into sin often, but that these sins are occasions of Divine grace and teaching for us.

****A selection, including the often-ripped-from-their-context last lines, from John Donne's Meditation XVII from Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, written while he was deathly ill and dedicated to Prince Charles (later King Charles II).
If anyone is disposed to point out, not untruly, that Donne here is speaking specifically of the supernatural coinherence of the Church, I would reply that, insofar as all men are designed for the vision of God, all men are meant for the Church and are potential members of the Church, and that her universal maternity is the appropriate way of relating to those outside of her as well as those within her.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Review: "God and the Gay Christian" by Matthew Vines

I realize that it is not customary to begin a review with an explanation of why you perhaps shouldn't be writing it. Nevertheless, the point of a review is to evaluate a book for potential readers, and doing so honestly is obligatory. I wouldn't feel I had fulfilled that obligation unless I stated frankly from the outset that I may not be able to evaluate this book objectively.

In one sense, nobody can do that -- everybody has a position on these topics these days -- but the pertinent reason is that I'm in this book. Matthew Vines refers to Stephen Long's blog, Sacred Tension (a fairly well-known blog in the gay Christian mesocosm*), and specifically to the post Falling In Love. It so happens that I am "Andrew."** I hasten to add that Stephen's portrait of our relationship is true (though I think it rather more generous and gentle towards me than I deserve), and also that I don't think that Mr. Vines has misrepresented it, though it feels odd to read about it "out of context," as it were -- but that's inevitable.

I don't believe that this has adversely affected my ability to judge the book; if I did, I'd probably have sent the advance copy back with an apology. But I would feel less than fully honest if I withheld this information from my own readers, so that they can come to their own conclusions about whether I've judged Mr. Vines' work fairly, and why or why not.

This review will of necessity be woefully incomplete. I hadn't read more than halfway through God and the Gay Christian before I became convinced that the only really adequate review of its contents would be a book in itself. I haven't written that book, and have cut out a lot of things I would have liked to put into this review for the sake of brevity; but the brute fact is that the questions Vines raises here are vital ones, not only for life as a homosexually attracted believer, but for a Christian perspective on sexuality in general. That is a sizable topic even in its own right, and when we consider its implications for the Church's ability to evangelize the world, it becomes colossal.

The book is coming out on May 6 of this year, via Convergent Books, and will (I gather) be available both in bookstores and online.

The Strong Points

I haven't watched the hour-long video that Matthew Vines released a couple of years ago on this same subject, but it went viral, and I think I can see why. His writing is highly accessible, and he makes his points with concision. He writes confidently, but without rancor -- a welcome change of tone in this debate, in which both sides are very much to blame for the mutual bitterness and resent that frequently animates gay-Christian dialogue -- and his power to do that is fairly remarkable, considering the difficulties that every gay believer tends to find himself in, both interior and exterior.

More than that, Vines' devotion, and particularly his passion for evangelism, shines through in this book. He strives to be faithful to the Scriptures, when it would have been far easier to simply dismiss them as incorrect or irrelevant, on this topic at the least (nor would he have been unable to find churches that would support him). I think his refusal to discard the Bible in that way laudable. And he pinpoints one of the basic problems with the approach to this topic that conservative Christians all too characteristically take, in the opening paragraph of chapter seven:
I am far from the only gay Christian who has heard the claim that gay people will not inherit the kingdom of God. That message is plastered on protest signs at gay-pride parades. It is shouted by roaming street preachers at busy intersections and on college campuses. The result is that, for many lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people, all they have heard about the kingdom of God is that they won't be in it.***
I admit I fundamentally disagree with his solution, so to speak, but his statement of the problem is exact -- and, to a well-formed Christian conscience, should be shaming.

His analysis of the story of Sodom, one of the most famous of the "clobber passages," is also more or less sound; and the distinction he draws between lustful indulgence and authentic relationships between people of the same sex, while I don't think it goes as far as he thinks it does, is nevertheless an important one.

He also raises an extremely important point in chapter 9 in his discussion of the image of God: that gay sexuality can't be reduced to the desire for gay sex, and that to do so is destructive. I've read a lot of traditionally-minded Christians either claiming, or seeming to claim, that a homosexual person's sexuality as a whole is misdirected, not just the specific desire for sexual union with another man or another woman. But sexuality is more than simply sexual desire; Vines rightly says that it involves our capacity for relationship in general (consciously or unconsciously echoing the Catechism in paragraphs 2331 and 2332), and the Church does not and should not condemn a person's entire sexuality in that way. And that realization has to be part of a life-giving, Christian view of sexuality, whether it approves of gay sex or not.

The Weak Points

Nevertheless, Vines' argument in general is seriously unsound, in three basic ways: incomplete information, unsubstantiated assumptions, and invalid reasoning.

I do not suggest that this is an effect of deliberate distortion or deceit on his part. That would be an exceedingly serious charge to level at anybody, let alone a fellow Christian, and one whose experience I can sympathize with a great deal: I'm a gay believer too, after all, and I was raised in the Reformed tradition from which he hails. I am here dealing strictly in the things he says. I propose to take him at his word when he asserts that he says them because he thinks they are true -- and I have deep respect for that.

Still, the argument is gravely faulty. To begin with, almost his entire argument is characterized by two serious fallacies: first, that modern understandings (notably of sexual orientation and gender relations) are correct simply because they are modern -- the mistake of "chronological snobbery"; and second, that the doctrine of gender complementarity means nothing more than anatomical compatibility.

Taking his treatment of gender as our example, the only attempt Vines makes to demonstrate that an ancient approach to it is wrong is to appeal to the fact that most Christians today (that is, most American Christians) don't believe it. It's quite true that the language of Scripture was affected by the culture it was written in -- but then, so are our own ideas about gender. He gives no reason to trust the ideas about gender that are popular in our day rather than the ones that were popular back then. And the same lack of a critical approach to our own era's thinking comes up again and again. In principle, a case could surely be made for the characteristic contemporary view. But Vines doesn't in fact make a case for it; it operates simply as a consistent assumption. (The closest he comes is in an extremely disputable exegesis of Galatians 3.28, where he takes the statement that "in Christ there is neither male nor female" to be a criticism of patriarchy as such -- but he does not provide anything like adequate evidence to back this up.)

Similarly, a great deal of his interpretation of both Leviticus and the New Testament relies on the notion that the perceived feminization of men who were the passive partners in anal intercourse was considered disgraceful, and those who inflicted it were disgraced for doing so -- which is quite true, but which he explains solely in terms of the rampant misogyny of the time, without considering the possibility that, for the authors of Scripture at least, sexual complementarity might have played a role as well. The idea that, misogyny aside, there might nevertheless be some kind of disgrace in treating a man like a woman or vice versa is never even raised, let alone refuted. He rightly distinguishes between a belief in complementarity and a misogynistic outlook, but fails to consider whether there is anything more to complementarity than human anatomy -- whether gender is also a spiritual fact, and not exclusively a physical and psychological fact -- which might have a profound effect upon our view of gender relations: which, in the traditional view and especially in the Catholic view (as articulated in Theology of the Body), does have precisely a determinant role in sexual ethics.

Vines' data on the stability of sexual orientation is incomplete and poorly interpreted. He takes the collapse of the ex-gay movement, in addition to the testimony of the APA et al. that reorientation therapies don't work, as more or less conclusive proof that sexual orientation is fixed, a premise on which a great deal of his argument is constructed. But this does not follow; sexual fluidity is equally well known to the APA, and the fact that something cannot be changed by trying to make it change, doesn't mean that it is immutable -- for the same reason that pulling on the top of a sapling won't make it grow faster, yet that does not prove that saplings don't grow.

One of the largest and most basic problems, though, can be stated in relation to the following passage:
Mandatory celibacy for gay Christians differs from any other kind of Christian self-denial, including voluntary celibacy for some straight Christians. ... For straight Christians, abstinence outside marriage affirms the goodness both of marriage and of sex within marriage. But for gay Christians, mandatory celibacy affirms something different: the sinfulness of every possible expression of their sexuality. ... Functionally, it is castration. Such an absolute rejection of one's sexuality might make sense if one's sexual desires were oriented exclusively toward abusive or lustful practices. It makes considerably less sense when at least some of one's desires are oriented toward a covenantal relationship of mutual love ...****
I won't listen to those who claim that all homosexual practice is degraded, an assertion that is demonstrably false -- one has only to look at loving gay couples to know that. But when once we admit that, yes, some people may be called through no choice of their own, yet by the nature of their sexual desires, to abstain totally from those desires, then we must logically admit that the doctrine that homosexual sex is intrinsically wrong still makes sense even in the context of a modern approach to sexual orientation.

The traditional doctrine might, of course, be false, even if it does make sense. But that must be proven or disproven on other grounds; the grounds of the suffering it causes are defined to be irrelevant to its truth or falsity by the nature of the argument. For someone whose desires are oriented toward something that Christians en masse agree is wrong for one reason or another -- say, polygamy, or pedophilia, or objectum sexuality***** -- is apt to experience the same trials of frustration, loneliness, and misunderstanding that afflict a queer experience. If we can dismiss the traditional doctrine of homosexuality as unwholesome on the grounds of these sufferings, then they are equally valid reasons to dismiss them for other cases; but if suffering is not an adequate reason by itself to dismantle those doctrines, then it isn't relevant to this discussion either.

I don't say this out of any insensitivity to what I'm proposing. I am all too keenly aware of the cost of this particular discipleship. It's true that going without sex, in itself, is not the agony or even the inconvenience that many people suppose, and it's also true that some people don't find celibacy much of a cross to bear. But some of us do, and it is those who find it a torment (whether from within or from without) who are, as it were, at stake here. The scorched earth style of what some churches are pleased to call their fellowship, and the "put up and shut up" attitude evinced by many Christians, are grossly inappropriate, and deserve frank and unequivocal condemnation as being utterly unchristlike whenever they manifest themselves; and I myself have endured the way of this cross, and fallen not only on my knees but on my face under its weight; even now I am daily crucified upon the absence of the man that I love.

But I love the truth too. I often stray, but altering the path I'm walking on is another matter, and I can't do that over thorns and stones, however savage. The presence of such things is not a sign that this is not what God has for us: the Cross and the lives of the saints teach us that. They were stoned; they were sawn asunder, were tempted, were slain with the sword: they wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins; being destitute, afflicted, tormented (of whom the world was not worthy).

I don't for one moment suppose that Vines himself would do anything else, if he were once convinced that this were God's will. He is in fact convinced that God's will is something else, and no one should presume to cast doubt on his motives when the only thing he's done is disagree with a particular traditional doctrine. But the plain fact is, when rigorously analyzed, his case just isn't adequate: it is riddled with faulty reasoning, unquestioned assumptions, and incomplete data, and these things are of the very stuff of his necessary premises and most important steps of argument.

Is It Worth Reading?

It depends on why you're reading it. If you are looking for a sound historical, linguistic, logical, and Biblical study, I would have to say no. His training isn't sufficient in these areas (though I'd be quite pleased to see what he did with it if it were -- what, perhaps, he will do with it some day in the future when it is?), and the sources he relies upon appear in many cases to be either incomplete or tendentious.

However, if what you're looking for is a readable work that does express many of the exemplary contemporary arguments for a gay-affirming interpretation of Scripture, I think this is a very important book indeed, and one that will probably have a widespread and lasting influence. I am of the opinion that Vines has given gravely wrong answers to the questions that he has raised, but he has raised exactly the right questions: addressing matters that are both important in themselves and very much on the minds and hearts of the rising generation, gay and straight, and even Christian and non-Christian. Any coherent, thorough articulation of traditional Christian beliefs about homosexuality is going to have to go a lot further than "God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve" -- further even than, "Look, read this Christopher West book" -- and it's going to have to do so in a way that addresses the same issues that God and the Gay Christian addresses, and with just as much clarity and appeal.

*I love words!

**Naturally I obtained his permission before revealing what he chose to keep private when he wrote the relevant post. We agreed that, insofar as it is our story, we may both tell it.

***Chapter 7, "Will Gay People Inherit the Kingdom of God?", p. 119. Page numbers in the published edition may not correspond exactly.

****Chapter 1, "A Tree And Its Fruit", pp. 18-19, emphasis mine.

*****I have deliberately chosen examples that are, in my judgment, dissimilar from both homosexuality and one another for this line of argument. This is partly because I think a diverse set of examples strengthens the argument. 
     It is also partly in the forlorn hope of quelling the firestorm that will probably arise from having brought up pedophilia: pro-gay people furiously denouncing me for implying that they are the same, and and anti-gay people just as furiously agreeing with me that they are the same; when in fact I do not think that they are the same at all and, having been the victim of someone else's pedophilia on the one hand, and being gay myself on the other hand, am outraged at the conflation of the two.
     If you're unfamiliar with objectum sexuality and, reasonably enough, scared to google it, you can read a rational treatment of the subject here, and an inappropriate and hilarious treatment here.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Music: William Byrd and Psalters

I'd like to wish everyone a happy Solemnity of the Annunciation. Enjoy your day of not having to fast.

I have posted two songs for today, quite different ones. I wanted to post both, but I was having a hard time coming up with a pretext to do so, since I normally only post one when I put music up here. (To those of you rational human beings who are thinking, "Uh, why isn't 'Because you feel like it' a good enough reason to post two songs?", shh.) Then I remembered that this, in addition to being one of the most important feasts of the Church's year -- indeed, in one sense, the root of every other feast, as it marks the beginning of the Incarnation -- it is also one of the feasts that Catholic and Orthodox Christians celebrate on the same date. So my excuse is a celebration of that fact.

Appropriately, the former of these songs is a piece of Latin polyphony by William Byrd, one of the finest composers of the English Renaissance and a convert from Anglicanism to Catholicism, while the latter is by the nomadic, anarchist band Psalters, whose album The Divine Liturgy of the Wretched Exiles is heavily influenced by Orthodox motifs. This one in particular incorporates the Trisagion or "Thrice-Holy," traditionally chanted at some point during the liturgy of the Scriptures (often before the Epistle is read, but it seems to vary in different places).

I couldn't get the video settings that I know how to work with to cooperate, so the second one is at this link.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Reblog: Aaron Taylor; And Also Some Other Things

Aaron Taylor, a regular contributor to Spiritual Friendship (which you can find among the Sites That Rock Reasonably Hard on the right hand side of your computer screen) and Ethika Politika (which you can find wherever internets provide it), has recently published an excellent article, suggesting a possible direction for -- well, I can only think to call it "sanctified homoerotic love" -- a highly misleading title, but everything else seems even more misleading in one way or another. I think a perusal of that article, Christianity and Same-Sex Eros, will clarify it. And anyway he's a good writer and you should read his stuff.

Also, I have recently received an advance copy of Matthew Vines' book, God and the Gay Christian: The Biblical Case in Support of Same-Sex Relationships. Vines, whom I have touched on before here at Mudblood Catholic, is one of the more prominent figures in what's sometimes called "Side A" theology, i.e. the belief that God blesses same-sex marriages just like opposite-sex ones. I'm planning to write a review of it, hopefully before Easter, and I ask for your prayers, both to get off my duff and do it, and to read and write with a just and attentive mind.

Also also, you should listen to the podcast Welcome to Night Vale. I just started listening to it two days ago, and I have fallen in love with it, carnally.

Also also also, happy Solemnity of Saint Joseph.