Collect for the Fourth Sunday after Easter

O Almighty God, who alone makest the minds of the faithful to be of one will: grant unto thy people, that they may love the thing which thou commandest, and desire that which thou dost promise; that so, among the manifold changes of the world, our hearts may surely there be fixed, where true joys are to be found; through 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.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Raw Tact, Part VII: Wilderness

When I gave up on chastity, a couple of years ago, it hardly felt like a choice at all. At any rate, it didn't feel like a meaningful one. It wasn't that I didn't perceive the gravity of the issue, it was that trying to be chaste quite simply didn't seem possible any longer. I had tried, and I had failed, so often and so thoroughly, that it seemed less immoral -- and less dangerous -- to at the least seek a monogamous and meaningful relationship.

Because, deep down inside, we all want a chance to show that special someone what boredom really is.

I can't really tell whether I've resumed the attempt at chastity now. I suppose I have. I mean, I'm trying to not have sex with guys, inside or outside any relationship. But the reasons I'm trying, and the form that trying now takes, are so alien to me that I don't even know how to classify them. And I'm not saying that as a clever, authorly way of conveying how real virtues are never what they look like from the outside (though that doubtless is also true). I really mean that the strange conglomeration of motives and decisions going on inside me -- they hardly feel like they're morally oriented at all. Even if they were to result in total abstention for the remainder of my life,* talking about these choices in terms of practicing virtue doesn't feel natural.

The thing, I think, that is hardest about the intersection of factors that I and men and women like me find ourselves in -- homosexual, Christian, evidently not called (for the foreseeable future, anyway) to marriage, and apparently not called to the priestly or religious lives -- the thing that seems hardest about it, sometimes, is the shapelessness of it. 

It's easy to feel frustrated and left out, socially and emotionally as well as sexually, when your friends are getting married in droves and having children, and you know you can't -- or at least not without a radical reworking of your personality. A lot of straight Christian readers will want to leap up at this point and say that that's exactly what God's grace and growth in holiness do, is to radically rework your personality. But sit back, for a moment, and try to imagine what it would cost you to enter a way of life in which most of your relational instincts, and nearly all of your sexual ones, are aimed at something that isn't there, and have to be redirected toward a radically different pattern.

No, not that pattern.

... Closer?

Well, what about celibacy? What, indeed. Some of us have callings to the priesthood, or to become consecrated brothers and sisters, yes. But they are always a minority of a population, and being gay is not a mark of that sort of vocation, any more than not having a visa to visit Canada makes you likely to be heading for Mexico. They might coincide -- but it would only be a coincidence.

The catch in that is, most of the structures that support celibacy in the Catholic Church are precisely those structures of the priestly and religious lives. Lay celibacy has long existed in the Church; one thinks of Cordelia Flyte in Brideshead Revisited, who speaks of both her brokenly alcoholic brother and herself, an ex-postulant from a community of nuns, as being "odd hangers-on" who don't quite fit into either the world or the cloister. It makes me wonder whether this is, or was, a more peculiarly European (or at least Old World) phenomenon, as I don't know that I've seen it in America. I have been seeking guidance on living as a lay celibate for years, and thus far, nearly all the advice I've run across has consisted, in substance, of "Make friends." Gee thanks.

But it's more than a lack of guidelines, a lack of forms or rules. Those things, rather, are symptoms of a more general feeling of lack: the lack of a positive choice. As someone -- well, it may not be very holy of me to feel this way, but as someone who has more or less been backed into celibacy by the dissonance between my erotic desires and my religious convictions, I haven't really felt that I was choosing something that existed in its own right. I've only felt the No: not marriage, not priesthood, not monasticism. I haven't felt the Yes, the decision to embrace something with a specific character, a shape of its own.

"Behold the handmaid of the Lord: be it unto me according to thy word."

Cardinal O'Brien, the previous Archbishop of Baltimore, said that young people would give their lives for a mystery but not for a question mark. In pursuing celibacy as a gay Catholic layman, I very much feel that I've been offered a question mark.

It didn't have to be this way. I think that for our "grandchildren," or perhaps some generation further off than they, it won't be: that the accumulated experience of adaptations, mistakes, innovations, and sufferings will have formed a treasure of wisdom that will be equal to mapping this part of the wilderness that is God -- no longer a question mark, still a mystery. But right now it is this way. Right now it seems to be an embrace of something with no shape, a trek in a wilderness that has no roads.

And really it's the future I'm scared of. Few individual moments are unbearable. One reaches the occasional breaking point; and then you break, or mysteriously don't. But it's the prospect of a whole life spent this way that is so intimidating. The remorseless, incessant transitions, the sense of losing friend after friend to a marital or religious life that you can't share or even, really, understand, the feeling that everybody got a real vocation except you -- illusory, to be sure. Unfortunately that knowledge doesn't help much. Or rather, it strengthens without consoling; like a nutritious, flavorless meal, with just enough to quiet hunger pangs and no more. A flavorless meal -- a small, flat disc of white bread, the tiniest sip of wine; just enough. And that being suspended with just enough is really scary, because what if it stops being enough? What if it isn't there next time?

From Hyperbole and a Half, "Depression, Part Two" by Allie Brosh

As so often -- I have no answers, and therefore offer none. I categorically refuse to cite some sanctimonious moral about faith making everything better. That's not what faith is for, and it is most certainly not what faith does. The most I can do is say, with Job, that Though He slay me, yet shall I trust Him -- but with same uncomprehending agony in the background, or rather in the foreground. (How strange that we modern Christians have managed to turn, of all things, the book of Job, that collection of saintly blasphemies, into a source of cute bumper sticker quotations.)

*Fat chance of that. God is admittedly a worker of miracles, but it'd take a miracle for me to be that successful at chastity, and He doesn't generally seem to send miracles merely to accommodate His children's spiritual convenience.


  1. I definitely hear what your saying about trying to embrace a question mark... That seems to be the most frustrating thing about living chastely. I don't know what the future holds, whether it be marriage or an endless frustration of sexual desires. Since I don't know what the future holds, I try not to let it make me anxious (which it will in a heartbeat if I let it). One thing I found to be good advice is that in the future, when I am no longer in my twenties, the acuteness of the desire fades for the majority of the time. It may not be of much help for those moments now when it seems unbearable, but it does make that possibly endless future of frustration a little bit less frightening.

    In those moments, I have been trying a new thing: praying the lament psalms. My church recently did a teaching on these psalms, and the teacher noted that all of them, except Psalm 88, have a very distinct shift to an expression of trust at the end. A couple people in the class asked what had changed between these stanzas, and I wanted to shriek out that nothing had changed. The psalmist gives us the example of how sometimes when there is nothing redeeming (at least not that you know) in your circumstances, when you need God to change the situation or at least give you understanding, and He is silent, when that happens we can still trust in God. That faith is not pleasant; it takes every scrap of strength that I have to trust that God will give me just enough. And most of the time, it seems I fail in these situations. But, it is somewhat comforting to know that the saints of old had these dark days as well, and that they provide the example for us. Not very comforting, but perhaps the very act of praying these laments will be enough to sustain me.

  2. I'm not gay, but I was discussing something similar on another blog. Many people on Catholic blogs married young and have no idea of the loneliness that can come from the single life. I put out the idea of chaste companionship for gays. Of course, my idea of what is chaste may be different than official church teaching. Hugging, kissing, massage etc.. seem chaste to me. Having a companion to share your life with is more than a sexual desire. Many Catholics don't get that.

  3. Is this a really crazy idea? What about looking forward to the day when you might act as as a foster parent or adopting parent to a child who really needs the emotional intimacy parenting can offer. It's not or shouldn't be done in an exploitive way. Rather, it should be done in a way of serving God. The spiritual benefit of parenthood is a gift given in return for that service.

    I'm sure there are all kinds of problems with my idea. But, there are many in need who could benefit, including the person doing the fostering or adopting.

    1. I don't see any intrinsic problem with this, but Id be extraordinarily hesitant to do it. I realize that many children are raised by something other than a mother and a father and turn out 100% fine, and that the religious orders, single parents, gay couples, etc. who do the childrearing in question are often outstanding nurturers with generous hearts. But for me personally, I would be very reluctant to put a child under my care; I don't expect to marry or be otherwise partnered, and I doubt that I could reconcile myself to raising a child without a mother. And I wouldn't be comfortable raising a child on my own in any case: apart from the hugeness of the task, my struggle with depression is serious enough to make me question whether I'm fit to be a father, or at any rate a single father. If I were married, I would re-evaluate, but, as I've said, that's kind of academic, unless God pulls a quite unexpected card out of His sleeve.

    2. If being a full-time parent isn't your calling, mentoring programs for children who need the care of a parental figure they're not getting at home can be incredibly rewarding. Not as rewarding as bacon, but hey, few things in life are.

      As an aside, I too used to long for companionship, but a strange thing happened: complacency. I now wish for no partner, no sex, as it is I rarely socialize with anyone unless need be. My desires have been entirely petrified. I feel free, having yet lacking nothing. (But hey, I also eat a diet of raw oatmeal, white beans and kasha, so, maybe I'm just a little out there.)

      But. It is scary in a way that I can't explain, like a door has shut that can never be opened again. Not really a good place to, if the thought ever crossed your mind, don't ever try to numb yourself to a desire to fit in somewhere, it doesn't work out well, even when it works ;)

  4. When I was fighting the ex-gay corner, which was really just a fight for celibacy, I was never able to accept the overwhelmingly depressing idea of a life lived without marital love. It felt, and still feels, like every atom of my being was designed to be with someone else. Even worse I was never able to keep that depression out of my thoughts. Some people can push such thoughts out of their minds and live a compartmentalized life, but I never was able to do that. The darks just always seemed to get darker. I'm sorry I don't want to discourage you, this was just my experience. In the end I was forced to agree with St. Paul who seems to have believed that celibacy, like any other spiritual gift, is a charismatic gift. If he was right then it seems dubious theological territory to posit that all gay people are gifted specifically with the charism of celibacy.

  5. Perhaps our call is to turn a life of wandering into a kind of pilgrimage. This is how I relate to St. Benedict Labre, a guy who felt he was called to monastic life and was rejected by many houses until he finally settled, having walked from convent to convent in his unsuccessful search of the right place, for an unceasing walk between sanctuaries across Europe. He travelled on the roads in the company of so many beggars who were just like him, or not exactly. In the first times of the Church, St. Anthony the Great became the founding model of hermits and monks, living in the desert that was considered the place where the devil had been exiled, and it was said his spiritual combat was to fight him right there, turning the desert into a place for others who followed his example. In a sense, St. Benedict Labre did the same, in the moral and spiritual desert of lost souls on the roads of his time. By analogy, I find meaning in his story, but I still often feel without a compass. The important thing is that he himself only found at later stage what his vocation was, one that did not fill into pre-existing models.