Collect for the Fourth Sunday after Trinity

O God, the protector of all that trust in thee, without whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy: increase and multiply upon us thy mercy; that, thou being our ruler and guide, we may so pass through things temporal, that we finally lose not the things eternal; grant this, O heavenly Father, for the sake 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.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Arizona Versus Uganda: Which Is Worse?

I wrote a rant yesterday about the ghastly bill signed into law in Uganda recently. I hadn't really finished letting off steam, so I got in touch with a pastor friend of mine and cantankered* at him for twenty minutes or so. As I was finishing off, I said, "It just feels like nobody's listening."

"Can I tell you something?" he asked me.


"Nobody's listening."

How awkward was it, you ask? Look no further.

He went on to give a nod to the controversy surrounding the Arizona bill that Governor Brewer recently vetoed, and similar stories (look at the collective "meh" our society gave to Ellen Page's coming out last week), and the way they saturate so much of our current media. People are sick of hearing about it, he said, and the LGBT community reacts with such ferocity to such minor affronts, it's no wonder that something like the Ugandan situation should hardly merit a blip on their radar.**

Frankly, I kind of agree with him. From what little I can discern of what the Arizona bill actually says, as opposed to what people say about it (and even the link I've provided is partisan -- though, it seems, sound enough -- and doesn't help you find the bill's text easily), I honestly agree with Matt Walsh's view. It may well be that the language of the proposed bill was too broad, but the principle that people should be free to operate their businesses according to their consciences surely stands: private businesses are by definition not departments or extensions of the government, and the First Amendment applies to them as much as to anybody else. You don't charge a Jewish deli with religious bigotry because they won't cater Saturday's pork roast. Likewise, if, say, a gay couple want wedding pictures from a Christian (or Moslem, or Jewish) photographer, and he declines to provide this non-vital good or service, the photographer is within his rights, and the gay couple is perfectly free to find another photographer. The photographer may well also be a jerk about it, either forthrightly or in the privacy of his mind, but there are no laws against jerkdom, nor should there be.

That is the price of a free society. Some people believe that gay marriage, for example, is wrong, and therefore decline to imply otherwise by providing for its trappings; I don't know that I consider such a stand necessary, but other people's consciences are not my business (thanks be to God). However, I am fairly certain that no one's conscience binds them to receive non-vital goods and services from any specific person or business; and I have absolutely no sympathy with the perspective that being inconvenienced by having to find another business to patronize, is an evil commensurate with legally forcing someone else to choose between their principles and their livelihood.

You may, if you like, argue that the price of a free society is not worth paying. But let us at least be clear who is arguing in favor of what.

The fact that this bill, or the off-the-cuff words of the star of Duck Dynasty (who is of no importance whatsoever and never claimed to be), can cause a media sensation, while there has been approximately no reporting on the Ugandan tragedy -- except, as far as I can see, from a small handful of gay Christian blogs like this one, whose interest is topical and long-standing -- is an appalling commentary on the narcissism and frivolity of our nation. It would be pathetic if it weren't so ridiculous, and ridiculous if it weren't so pathetic. That Jim Crow laws have even been brought up in the same context as the Arizona bill is an outrageous insult to the plight that has afflicted blacks in this country, and should have shamed those who mentioned it into silence. Kidnapping, torture, slavery, and disfranchisement are in a different category from even the most intense distress that faces a wedding planner.

Slightly worse than checking the second page of Google search results.

My pastor friend (as I knew, and as he took the trouble of saying for clarity's sake) didn't mean by his remarks that the cruelty of the Ugandan bill was genuinely unimportant; his point was that the childish caterwauling over the Arizona bill, et al., was one of the things that made people, Christians included, unresponsive. The LGBT community has had a hand in making people sick of hearing about this through its own lack of perspective: not the only hand, and it's happened for understandable reasons, but a hand nonetheless. All the more reason to be intellectually and morally rigorous with ourselves first, and only after that start being rigorous with other people.

As for the Christian response, or rather, the lack of it -- I don't know that I can trust myself to write rationally. But I will say that no matter how tired one is of hearing of the afflictions of others, they are important in and of themselves. We are not omnipotent, and must accept that we cannot fix everything or help everyone. But what we must not do is be complacent. What we must not do is regard Uganda, or anything, as merely somebody else's problem.

Pictured: a real place that is not in America.

For Christians, there is no "somebody else." We know all others only through Christ, the Second Adam; we all coinhere with one another in Him, and He is the principle and the Person who interanimates us, all and each; for as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive. John Donne said it well, in his Meditation XVII, which I have been intoxicated with today:
Perchance hee for whom this Bell tolls, may be so ill, as that he knowes not it tolls for him; And perchance I may thinke my selfe so much better than I am, as that they who are about mee, and see my state, may have caused it to toll for me, and I know not that. 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; when one Man dies, one Chapter is not torne out of the booke, but translated into a better language; and every Chapter must be so translated; God emploies several translators; some peeces are translated by age, some by sicknesse, some by warre, some by justice; but Gods hand is in every translation; and his hand shall binde up all our scattered leaves againe, for that Librarie where every booke shall lie open to one another ...  
If we understand aright the dignitie of this Bell that tolls for our evening prayer, wee would be glad to make it ours, by rising early, in that application, that it might bee ours, as wel as his, whose indeed it is. The Bell doth toll for him that thinkes it doth; and though it intermit againe, yet from that minute that that occasion wrought upon him, hee is united to God. ...  
No man is an Iland, intire of it selfe; every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine; if a Clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as well as if a Mannor of thy friends or of thine owne were; 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. ... [I]f by this consideration of anothers danger, I take mine owne into contemplation, and so secure my selfe, by making my recourse to God, who is our onely securitie. 
            At inde                                                         The Bell rings out, and tells
Mortuus es, Sonitu celeri,                                            me in him, that I am dead.
    pulsuque agitato.***

*A verb form of cantankerous that I made up today.

**Go ahead, make the joke, get it out of your system.

***From Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, a series of reflections Donne wrote while seriously ill. I've preserved the spelling and use of italics according to the collection I own (which has followed the manuscripts very closely) -- I object to emending authors' work when it isn't strictly necessary, though I have gone as far as to introduce paragraph breaks for the sake of readability. The second paragraph I've quoted, which is perhaps a somewhat dense "Metaphysical" conceit, is using the imagery of a bell summoning us to evening prayers as a symbol of death and of the life beyond death; it is something like, and unlike, Keats' famous lines: Now more than ever seems it rich to die, To cease upon the midnight with no pain. The likeness is plain enough; the unlikeness is that Keats was referring to a purely aesthetic experience (total aesthetic satiation upon hearing a nightingale sing), whereas Donne was looking to the coinherence with God and with mankind-in-God that awaits on the other side. The English lines at the bottom right are a very loose translation of the Latin epigram at the bottom left.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

The Least of These, My Brethren

It was a little bit of a shock, somehow. Partly because I could hardly take seriously the idea that human beings would treat one another with such pointless brutality. I think, too, I had sort of hoped that if I didn't pay attention to it, somehow nothing would happen. Not that I imagine things would've gone differently if I'd just thought about it hard enough. But I certainly might have prayed more for Uganda than I have done; and I might have tried to see if there was some organization I could have supported a little financially, someone doing something to either advocate against the bill, or get people out of there before the law brings its fist down upon them.

Yesterday, the Ugandan President, Yoweri Museveni, signed the infamous anti-gay bill into law, making anyone found guilty of attempting any homosexual conduct, or even contact, liable to life imprisonment. (At least they repealed the part making it punishable by death.) Dr. Warren Throckmorton's site links to a PDF of the bill itself if you don't believe me.

Life imprisonment. For something as small as a hug or a touch on the arm.

This is bullshit. This is insanity. If you think gay people are merely being paranoid when we advocate for legal reforms -- this is what we're scared of. Maybe in this country that fear isn't exactly rational, but don't talk like we're going into hysterics over somebody looking at us cross-eyed. That doesn't mean everything the LGBT community advocates for is right or necessary, either, but if you can contemplate this bill and its consequences with anything resembling approval, then please keep the hell away from me, because I am straight-up frightened of you.

All, all, Catholics should oppose this. I am deeply relieved to know that the Archbishop Lwanga of Kampala has spoken out against the hideous cruelty contained in this bill; though it is with bitterness, tears, and anger that I relate that Cardinal Onaiyekan of Nigeria has supported, and indeed praised, the similar bill passed in that country. The Vatican itself, by contrast, has made its own views fairly clear in a statement to the United Nations, to say nothing of the Catechism. It is a grave discredit to the Church's witness, both in America and internationally, that Catholics have not spoken more universally, more consistently, and louder about this bill and those like it as violations of the intrinsic dignity of man.

I realize and accept that there is, and may validly be, diversity among Catholics on how best to integrate gay people into society. I will even go so far as to acknowledge that supporting legal penalties for homosexual acts is not, in itself, an un-Catholic stance (though it has a shakier pedigree than proponents of such laws probably imagine: Catholic countries were ahead of the curve in abolishing sodomy laws).  I will freely criticize views of this subject if I think they are wrong -- that being the only adequate and necessary reason to oppose anything in my book -- but I won't accuse anybody of heresy or dissidence merely on that account. And as a believer in the separation of Church and state, I accept that the Church cannot force either her views or her methods upon any government, which is probably one reason why she tends to speak in generalities even when condemning something specific.

But this? I can't imagine viewing this as tolerable even if I were okay with sodomy laws, which I consider shocking in their cruelty as well as dangerously intrusive. And don't think for a moment that life in jail is the only thing Ugandan gays are being put at risk of. This is a witch hunt. This is a pogrom.

This is not about justice or decency. If it ever even was, it's not anymore. This, even according to the fairly rigorous definition I use, is pure homophobia. Homosexual conduct was already illegal in Uganda; even on the view (which I utterly reject) that sodomy laws are just, this wasn't needed. And it isn't only Uganda and Nigeria -- this poisonous atmosphere lies over half the African continent and more. Only days ago, President Jammeh of Gambia referred to homosexuals as "vermin" and compared us to mosquitos carrying malaria. This is a targeted dehumanization of a tiny minority, who are being stripped of legal protection in a group of societies that already hate and despise them.

I implore anyone and everyone who reads this to stop and pray for Uganda: for the safety and, if necessary, escape of Ugandan lesbians and gays; and for repentance and conversion on the part of the people in general, especially their political leaders. For the moment -- I hope not to leave it here permanently -- I don't specifically recommend anything further. This isn't because I don't want people to do any more than pray, but because I for one don't know what the wisest course of action is. I'm too ignorant of politics in general and of Ugandan culture in particular to have an opinion on that. Opposition to these laws from western powers has been labeled as "colonialism" by some Ugandans, and it is hard to know what practical effects sanctions and so forth would have; it could easily devolve into even worse demonizing and scapegoating of LGBT people than is already happening.

If by some chance there is anyone reading this who has supported these laws, or still does, I beg you to examine your conscience. This is not defending traditional marriage or the family. This is an assault on the human dignity of people who happen to be attracted to the same sex. They too are somebody's sons and daughters. And you too are subject to human frailty. Consider for a moment that, under the terms of this bill, a single slip-up, even by someone trying to conduct a celibate life, can be punished by being shut up in a jail cell until they die. If you propose to support this on Christian grounds, I should like to know if that is how Christ treats you when you make mistakes -- or when, as we all sometimes do, you throw your sins in His very face. And, if you are in support of the Scriptures being applied to the lives of every person, I would remind you of one of the more terrible things they contain: not a condemnation of this or that sexual sin, but a promise and a warning: Verily I say unto you, inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Francis vs. Benedict: Thunderdome Edition

Pictured: the relevant Thunderdome.

I wanted to do a piece on Pope Benedict and Pope Francis in celebration of the Solemnity of the Throne of Peter -- for us in the Anglican Use, it is a Solemnity, not just a Feast like it is for most Catholics. (The Anglican Use is a sort of subgenre of Catholicism: of Anglican origin, having entered full communion with the Bishop of Rome, but preserving certain elements of the Anglican patrimony; so, our prayers and rituals owe a lot to the Book of Common Prayer, complete with thees and thous. Here in the US, the overarching group of Anglican Use Catholics is the Ordinariate of the Chair of Peter, which is a little like a diocese, but I am already being a dangerously dull person.)

Ain't no Mass like an Anglican Use Mass 'cause an Anglican 
Use Mass don't stop. Seriously, our liturgies take like two hours.

We are, of course, nearing the first anniversary of Benedict's famous abdication, the first of its kind in six hundred years; and the anniversary of Francis' accession is approaching as well, so it seemed appropriate on those grounds too.

Pope Francis has been famously popular with a surprisingly large swath of people, including a stunning multitude of non-Catholics. It's not every Supreme Pontiff who receives the threefold tiara of gracing the covers of Time, Rolling Stone, and The Advocate. The journalistic narrative to date represents him as the hero and symbol of a new, changing Church, one finally ready to listen to the world.* Pope Benedict, by contrast, only seems to have been popular with fairly traditional, observant Catholics, and was disliked -- even denounced -- from many quarters: accused of complicity in the abuse scandals, charged with supporting and increasing Catholic homophobia, damned as the very symbol of irrational and intolerant dogmatism -- even accused quite literally of being an anti-Semite and a former, and presumably impenitent, Nazi.

Plus he always did kinda look like Darth Sidious.

In short, Benedict was the symbol of everything wrong with the hidebound, reactionary Church, and Francis is the deliverer. To give you an idea of the contrast between these two men from their own words, here are six quotations from sermons, encyclicals, books, and so forth. See if you can guess which ones are from Pope Francis and which are from Pope Benedict.

1. "With great precision, albeit with a certain one-sided bias, Marx described the situation of his time, and with great analytical skill he spelled out the paths leading to revolution -- and not only theoretically ... His promise, owing to the acuteness of his analysis and his clear indication of the means for radical change, was and still remains an endless source of fascination."

2. "The rabbi does not speak from his own resources. He is not a professor, analyzing and reflecting on the Word of God in an intellectual way. No, he makes present the Word that God addressed and addresses to Israel. God speaks through Moses today."

3. "Seen from the viewpoint of the Cross, it becomes clear that Jesus was the kind of person who transcends all normal standards and who cannot be explained in normal terms. It would otherwise be incomprehensible for groups hostile to one another, Jews and Romans, believers and atheists, to join together to rid themselves of this remarkable prophet. He just did not fit into any of the ready-made categories people use, and therefore they had to clear him out of the way."

4. "Secularism and fundamentalism exclude the possibility of fruitful dialogue and effective cooperation between reason and religious faith. Reason always stands in need of being purified by faith; this also holds true for political reason, which must not consider itself omnipotent. For its part, religion always needs to be purified by reason in order to show its authentically human face. Any breach in this dialogue comes only at an enormous price to human development."

5. "Let us be blunt, even at the risk of being misunderstood: the true Christian is not the denominational party member but he who through being a Christian has become truly human; not he who slavishly observes a system of norms, thinking as he does so only of himself, but he who has become freed to simple human goodness."

6. "There may be a basis in the case of some individuals, as perhaps when a male prostitute uses a condom, where this can be a first step in the direction of a moralization, a first assumption of responsibility, on the way toward recovering an awareness that not everything is allowed and that one cannot do whatever one wants. But it is not really the way to deal with the evil of HIV infection. That can really lie only in a humanization of sexuality."

So! Which are from the German and which are from the Argentinian? [Insert Jeopardy music here] Ha, trick question, of course -- they're all Benedict.**

Good beer, good composers, good Catholic families, and hilarious lunatics who spent 
all their money on state-bankrupting castles. Is there anything Bavaria doesn't excel in?

I've honestly begun to believe that Pope Benedict XVI's media-based critics fall chiefly into two categories: those who are critical of Catholicism as such, and those who have not actually read anything he's written. After all, we live in a world where Upworthy is a thing (as if people relying on the New York Times or government press releases wasn't a sufficient source of intellectual jackfuckery). I doubt that most of the journalists who wrote about Benedict, except those actually working for papers like L'Osservatore Romano, read almost anything that he wrote or said, let alone in context, let alone understood it; after all, he is a German academic theologian by trade, and he can be a demanding read. Who has the time for, uh, "journalistic rigor"? Much more cost-effective to give people something they can be pleasantly shocked about, one that the facts will at any rate not immediately dispel. The trend is continuing with Pope Francis, of course, except that the misconstructions the press puts on this pontiff are much more appealing. And, since we are predisposed to accept the summaries of others about things we're not interested in -- and not many people who aren't themselves devoted Catholics could sincerely profess interest in reading papal documents -- why would anyone bother to dig deeper?

Having already read some of his writings before he was elected Pope, and having continued to read them since, I'm very much tempted to laugh when people call him an anti-Semite -- of the small collection of his writings that I own, you could pick up any one at random and find, not just him quoting and analyzing the Tanakh with a manifestly studious love of it, but speaking highly of Judaism as such and explaining Christian ideas in terms of Judaism. (Introduction to Christianity and The Spirit of the Liturgy are two outstanding examples of this.)

And despite his reputation as the brutal enforcer of orthodoxy***, his Christian sources are equally eclectic. For instance, he regularly references Luther, and with great respect. Okay, he is German, perhaps he couldn't avoid that. But he most certainly could have avoided his regular respectful references to theologians like Adolf von Harnack, Albert Schweitzer, and Teilhard de Chardin, all of whom exemplified and in some degree brought about that very theological liberalism which Pope Benedict was so largely credited with persecuting, and did spend much energy counteracting. Yet he interacts seriously with their ideas -- often without agreement, but never without courtesy. All I can say is, if he was an anti-Semite or a theological tyrant, there is no evidence of it whatsoever, and it could be detected only by an omega-level telepath.

Not even close to strong enough.

The charge that he was a Nazi seems to be based on the fact that he was enrolled as a young man in the Hitler Youth. The people who point this out seem to neglect (or perhaps aren't aware of) the fact that all men and women his age were enrolled in the Hitler Youth by law; though we have his own testimony that a sympathetic teacher allowed him to avoid attending the meetings based on a technicality. That "involvement" is really the only evidence that anyone can set forth in support of the claim that he was or had ever been a Nazi or a Nazi sympathizer -- which is not, on the face of it, a credible claim.

For the Ratzingers were a well-known Catholic Bavarian family. The Bavarians were less sympathetic to National Socialism than many other Germans -- indeed, much of the German resistance was centered there, notably the White Rose movement at the University of Munich -- while the Catholic Church was actively persecuted by the Third Reich.

Turns out German Catholics kind of hated being murdered to death.****

Thousands of priests, monks, and nuns were arrested on trumped-up charges and sent to concentration camps (Dachau particularly); Catholic schools and press, along with the Catholic Youth League, were all suppressed by the early years of the war, if not sooner; former leaders of the defunct Catholic Center Party, notably Erich Klausener, an outspoken critic of the Nazis, were murdered on the Night of the Long Knives. The notion that Joseph Ratzinger, who had been enrolled in a junior seminary (until it was closed by the Nazi government), and who spent decades as a coworker and close friend of Blessed John Paul II, a Polish man who made a point of reaching out to the Jewish people, allowed himself to be enrolled in the Hitler Youth because of voelkisch enthusiasm -- well, it sounds oddly like horse shit.

The claim that Pope Benedict was soft on abuse is, to anyone with access to the facts, still more preposterous. Indeed, I can't think even of facts that could be reasonably misinterpreted to get that conclusion. He did oppose violating the sanctity of the confessional to get evidence for cases of abuse, but that isn't exactly new (and even apart from the violation of religious freedom that would be involved, would people go to the confessional with a crime they knew could be reported?). Benedict was, if anything, a complete hawk on the subject of predation. Unlike his wise and saintly, but in this instance imperfect, predecessor, he was not hoodwinked by the diseased and manipulative Marcial Maciel Degollado, the notorious predator who founded the Legionaries of Christ; and he also succeeded in getting many abuse cases transferred from the normal ecclesiastical courts, the Roman Rota, which tend to move at the speed of a snail with bad asthma, to his own jurisdiction, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which has considerably more despatch. Even the Huffington Post has noticed his efforts, and indeed his results -- though it does complain of the fact that the Church assigns no jail terms, despite the fact that Pope Benedict reiterated the already-existing rule that abusers must be reported to local civil authorities, because the Church kind of doesn't have any jails, and our society would surely be the first to object if she did.

First they complain about witches being burnt at the stake, then they complain about witches 
not being burnt at the stake. Maybe if we just gave witches a really bad sunburn at the stake ...

He has also been charged with homophobia -- notably for approving the document and decision that made "deep-seated homosexual tendencies" an impediment to receiving Holy Orders. However, having finally read the thing, it sounds to me (particularly given the emphasis it lays upon actions, and the appropriate distinction it draws between actions and inclinations) as though "deep-seated homosexual tendencies" might well signify a persistent problem with gay porn and masturbation, even if the man in question succeeds at the "don't have sex with dudes" part of chastity. If that's the case, this isn't fundamentally different from the requirements laid upon heterosexual men discerning the priesthood, and would simply be a clarification. Even if I'm wrong, and it's referring to homosexual attractions generally -- well, I'm not concerned to insist that everything Pope Benedict ever said or did was perfect; I am, furthermore, in the comfortable position of never having to deal with the smallest consequences of putting gay men, closeted or otherwise, into seminaries full of other men; and there are more important violations of the human dignity of LGBT people, like Ugandan or Iranian gays being slightly murdered for, um, existing -- something the Church has spoken out against on more than one occasion. Let's maintain a sense of proportion. And in any case these are the guidelines laid down for the local Bishop, for, as the Vatican document itself reiterates, it's primarily his job, not Rome's, to approve candidates (or not) for Holy Orders.*****

Canon law: surprisingly similar to the pirates' code.

So if Pope Benedict wasn't the Palpatine he looked, why did everybody think he was? Well, there are a few reasons. Personally, I'm inclined to think that a major one was quite simply that he is German. Despite the fact that we're distant enough from National Socialism to merely laugh at it, I think we have inherited a subtle but considerable prejudice against the German people.

There is also the brute fact that anti-Catholicism never quite died in this country, though it has gone from being a predominantly post-Puritan phenomenon with racist undertones (anti-Irish &c.), to being a predominantly secular phenomenon with undertones inherited from the Sexual Revolution; and the Catholic Church's refusal to settle neatly into our politico-economic categories exacerbates things still further. The appointment of a man who had the charge of maintaining the doctrinal purity of a religion that has always been an ideological "other" in this country was bound to bring that out, especially in a country where there is so much dissent within the Church itself, and where catechesis has been so poor for two generations.

And we must concede, also, that Blessed John Paul was a tough act to follow -- anybody would look bad after twenty-five years of one of the most active, charismatic pontiffs in two thousand years. Benedict was an intellectual, self-effacing sort, and one who was already a tired, elderly man; he had wanted to retire while John Paul II was still Pope. The amount of traveling and public speaking Pope Benedict did manage was a feat in itself.

There is also the problem of Benedict's humility. Francis has been much praised for his humility, and justly; but his is what we might describe as an extraverted humility. Benedict was always an introvert, an academic, a contemplative. He never defended himself against his critics, though he had no shortage; and he withdrew of his own free will from one of the most prominent positions on earth, and has succeeded in remaining in almost total obscurity since then. None of that is calculated to defend his reputation, though it does, to my mind, reveal a man of profound humility, one whose mind is on the task God has for him rather than upon what other people think of him.

Am I, then, devoted to the one, and despise the other? Or is it possible to serve both Benedict and Francis?

"Sure, whatever."

I actually love Pope Francis just as much as I loved Benedict (which was a great relief to me -- I was shocked and saddened when I heard of the latter's abdication, and was afraid that I wouldn't like his successor because I had been so attached to him). But I love them for completely different reasons; they are, after all, completely different men, and different shepherds in consequence. My affection and respect for Benedict remain deep, but I also think that Pope Francis' style is precisely what the Church is in need of now: he has a talent for displaying the joy, the winsomeness, and the simplicity of the gospel, and for refocusing our attention upon essentials.

In other words, Francis' differences are essentially differences in style. That might sound trivial, but I don't believe that it is. In a world of persons, the coinherence of persons, i.e., relationship, is intrinsically important, and style is very largely a description of the manner in which someone relates to others. He has not changed one jot or tittle of Catholic doctrine (nor, on the premises of Catholic doctrine, is he in fact able to do so); but he has brought out and emphasized elements of doctrine that we are apt to forget or ignore -- particularly western Christians, and even more particularly those of us who are not as other men are, or even as this tax collector.

He has, moreover, been willing to risk misunderstanding for the sake of getting a point across. Take his famous comment about gays, that ended with "Who am I to judge?" This was not in point of fact new from a doctrinal point of view; what was new about it was not just the vocabulary, not even just the tone, but the fact that the basic point -- that human beings are primarily human, and that even the Pope should not arrogate to himself the right to judge another man's servant -- was the only thing he concerned himself with establishing, even though he knew that people would misconstrue his words, whether deliberately or by accident.

The reason this is so important is, the sort of Catholic who is apt to get into apologetics is generally the sort who enjoys details for their own sake, and almost invariably the sort who wants to make sure that every jot and tittle is understood by his audience. And as a result, the audience leaves, because they have no reason to be interested in someone whose pedantry obscures his own message. Pope Francis, by contrast, understands that it is the message of the gospel that is primary, and that the details can wait, because they are precisely details, not the sum and substance.

What, then, is my basic point in all this? It is threefold:

1. Don't trust the media to tell you about the Catholic Church (well, or most things, really) -- whether it is liberal or conservative media makes no difference; instead, try and see what sources they're talking about, and then go and read the sources.

2. I loved Pope Benedict! I love Pope Francis! And whether you do too or not, pray for the Pope: his task is huge; if anyone needs it, he does.

3. Everything is better when you can reference Jean Grey somehow.

Remember the days of X1, when this franchise didn't suck?

*"The world" in this context means the Euro-American secular progressive world, there being no other -- at least, no other worth speaking of.

**1 is from the encyclical letter Spe Salvi or Saved In Hope, para. 20; 2 is from The Spirit of the Liturgy, p. 64; 3 is from a collection of homilies on the Eucharist titled God Is Near Us; 4 is from the encyclical letter Caritas In Veritate or Charity In Truth, para. 56; 5 is from his Introduction to Christianity, p. 270; 6, which made a splash in some very confused headlines a few years ago, is from an interview His Holiness gave, since published under the title Light of the World.

***As Cardinal Ratzinger, he had been head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican organization that deals with questions of orthodoxy and heresy (descended from the Holy Office, i.e., the Inquisition). Indeed, in a nod to the idea of "cafeteria Catholicism," when he was chosen as the Bishop of Rome in 2005, a quip made the rounds in some circles that "The cafeteria is closed."

****The picture shows Hans and Sophie Scholl, two of the best-known members of the White Rose, a pacifist resistance group. They were judicially murdered for opposing the war in 1943.

*****A lot of people seem to be under the vague impression that the Vatican more or less controls the appointment of all clergy. Even if this were desirable -- which, on the Church's view of subsidiarity, it isn't -- it wouldn't be possible. Speaking of maintaing a sense of proportion, there are about a billion Catholics worldwide, and the Pope has the care of all of them in some sense, and of the Roman Rite (which comprises most of them) especially. Even if the Pope pays less attention to LGBT issues than he ought to -- a thesis I don't propose to defend -- I think he can be excused for that.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Queer Identity, Part III: Label, Label, Label

I hadn't really thought about it before, but label is one of those words that stops sounding like a word at all if you say it enough times. (For that matter, I defy anyone to say it more than three times in succession without laughing.)

Given that what to call people who identify as gay -- or same-sex attracted -- or queer -- or homosexual -- or ... well, that need not detain us. I thought I would take a few of the more popular and/or important terms, and say a few things about how they each relate to gay identity, especially as viewed through a gay-identifying lens; and then also make some remarks about them from a specifically Catholic perspective. Do be warned that I'm discussing some of the more offensive terms here, too. (After thinking about it, I've decided not to treat of the words lesbian and dyke; not being a lesbian myself, and never having formally studied it to boot, I don't know how reliable my information on those words really is. For much the same reason, I haven't addressed the complicated terminologies that surround transgenderism and intersexuality, important though those topics are.)

I have a little label, I call myself a gay.
When I'm out and ready, then label I shall play.*

1. Gay. This is the best-known one, of course. It has a rather entertaining semantic history, if, like me, you are a criminally boring person; once upon a time, it was actually used of promiscuous heterosexual men, and also of prostitutes -- it wasn't adopted as a standard word for, uh, gay people until the middle of the twentieth century. It's therefore not to be wondered at that its meaning has proven fairly fluid: today, it indicates only orientation, but as recently as when my parents were reaching adulthood, it indicated behavior and even political stance. It's not off the cards that a new term or terms might supplant it as the most universal and neutral word for all-this-sort-of-thing.

This is part of why a lot of LGBT people really don't like the term, or even actively avoid it. It is the closest thing we have to common parlance; but its meaning and implications are not absolutely defined, and it tends to have, if not political, at any rate cultural baggage -- for instance, it tends to imply a certain degree of effeminacy and a certain amount of norm-flouting, even for those who aren't sexually active for whatever reason. I'm not specially fond of the word myself, and I've toyed with dropping it on a number of occasions. I still think of doing so now and again. But at least for the present, it's too widespread, and too mercifully succinct, to avoid -- brevity being (ironically) in short supply in these discussions.

My own thoughts on it as a Catholic specifically are, if it's good enough for the Vicar of Christ, it's good enough for Christians. But I admit I'm being a bit flippant there.

2. Same-sex attracted. This phrase raises a lot of hackles in the gay community. That's because it was employed, notably in the fifties, in psychological and psychiatric experiments aimed at curing gay people. The results were meager at best, and the techniques were sometimes downright barbaric, and/or ludicrous. (The slightly medical sound of the term homosexual sometimes has a milder version of the same effects, but I haven't observed this to be at all consistent -- it seems much more dictated by context for that word.)

Of course, based just on the literal meaning of each word, it ought to be a neutral term. That, I think, is a large part of why it's become PC-for-Catholics. But -- as many people, and not least those who advocate most strongly against the LGBT movement politically, point out -- the dictionary meaning of the term is not the only thing that counts. History, connotation, association -- in a word, baggage -- count too.

3. Queer. This is one of those words that was originally a slur, and was adopted by the community it was used to denigrate, as an act of defiance (not unlike nigger in some African American circles, although I have no idea whether the same applies outside of North America). For some people, queer is bidding fair to replace gay as the catch-all. It does have definite advantages: gay often implies homosexual men specifically, whereas queer applies equally to the L, the B, and the T, and any other letters one cares to add; it is somewhat older than the LGBT use of the term gay, going back to the nineteenth century; and, partly because of the circles in which it's been picked up, it has a more academic ring to it. (The faint suggestion of Latinity from the Q probably helps, too.)

The drawbacks are a little more subtle with this one. One of them is that it does sometimes indicate specifically some type of opposition to gender binaries as such, and a lot of LGBT people are totally fine with -- or even protective of -- such things. Gay men and lesbians who are socially pretty much the same as their straight friends, the (so-called) straight-acting types, may not identify with the idea of queerness at all. And some thinkers would specifically repudiate the gender-bending that queer terminology usually (though not always) implies. This leads into my next term.

4. Androphile. This one, on purely linguistic grounds, is actually my favorite. Unlike the word homosexual, which is a compound of Greek and Latin roots, this one is drawn from the Greek correctly, and I like the sound of it, too. However, words ending in -phile tend not to be nice ones in English, and it's not off the cards that if I adopted androphile instead of gay, I'd have to spend a good 40% of my waking hours explaining that, yes, I am also an Anglophile, but that isn't what I was talking about.

Moments of overlap between the two just make it worse.

I understand -- though my information on the subject is patchy -- that the word entered the LGBT conversation, so to speak, chiefly through the writings of Jack Donovan, who is a homosexual himself but highly critical of many aspects of gay culture, including the term gay, its traditional alliances with feminism and the Left, and the gender-bending that often characterizes it. Without being thoroughly acquainted with his views, I'm extremely leery of adopting the word.

5. Sodomite. This one has a long history of being associated with homosexuality, and, additionally, of being concerned more specifically with actions and not taking an interest in orientation as such. It is, however, less common than (I gather) it used to be, though I was once addressed by a street preacher as "Hey sodomite, get back here." It is derived, of course, from the judgment of Sodom, and can therefore claim a Biblical pedigree that same-sex attracted does not share. Even so, I doubt this will replace that as the new PC-for-Catholics term in the foreseeable future. If nothing else, there is the problem that Scripture itself does not unambiguously support assigning this meaning to the word sodomite.**

6. Faggot. This is a volatile, jagged sort of word. Its chief aim -- that of abusing and demeaning someone -- is too well-known to need further explanation. But there are some people who not only use it of themselves, but prefer it; I met Dan Savage once, and he introduced himself to the little group I was part of with "I'm a fag." I put this down to the same defiance that led to the adoption of words like queer; and, having used the word faggot of myself, I gotta say there can be something liberating about it. The sensation of taking up and controlling something that, in the past, has been used in order to damage you, is kind of exhilarating.

But it can equally be an expression of self-hatred -- and no less so when that self-hatred is disguised as (or mixed with) self-deprecation, exaggerated gayness, or bravado. Faggot is rather a dangerous word. Now, I'm extremely fond of offensive humor,*** so dangerous things are fine with me. But consideration of other people has to come first, and I rarely use it either of myself or others.

7. Friends of Jesus. This is what Blessed Mother Teresa referred to us as once in an interview, explaining to the interviewer, who had asked her for her views on the subject, that she did not like the word homosexual, and asking him to speak of them instead under this phrase. I've always found it difficult not to be completely charmed by everything she did, and it is most certainly a welcome change for some other attitudes I've encountered. However, I admit it's not terribly practical: Jesus does have other friends, so to speak, and it doesn't make its meaning clear from the get-go.

The fundamental problem with every label is that it's incomplete. That is a shortcoming of every kind of label, not just those dealing with sexual orientation and identity, but it does affect these areas just as much. And, more than that, the ideas that these labels signify are themselves incomplete, and very largely culturally constructed. Gay people went right ahead and existed without necessarily having any sensation of gay identity in the Classical, Mediaeval, and Enlightenment worlds -- or rather, that is how we would articulate it, because the point is that they probably wouldn't feel the need to articulate it, or would do so differently if the occasion arose.

I was going to put a picture of Humpty Dumpty here in homage to 
Alice, but the search results creeped me out and I changed my mind.

And the same is true looking forward: if, one day, the notion of gay identity is jettisoned, we'll still be here, not because gayness is some transcendent thing that "finds a way," but because it is the people who are primary here, not the categories. The categories are things we've made to help us understand the people, and they justify their existence solely by that usefulness. If and when that usefulness ceases, we'll be none the worse for scrapping them.

So what's the best word? Well, gay is probably the safest, if you have to gamble. But if you're talking to someone who actually is gay, I really advise you to just ask them what they prefer. They're not likely to be offended, and it's much easier and safer than guessing.

*I feel like I should apologize for this for some reason. But I can't bring myself to, it's too much fun. My label's always playful, it loves to dance and spin. A happy game of label, oh play now let's begin.

**I would have thought that no sane, practicing Christian could seriously contemplate talking about people as sodomites in their hearing, except perhaps in a fit of anger. Having read the comment boxes of certain magazines, blogs, and so forth, I'm compelled to take the view that either fits of anger are more plentiful, or sanity is scarcer, than I had hoped; I am still loathe to renounce my original opinion.

***Warning: that link is exactly what is says on the tin.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Poetry: An Antithalamion

To my widower

Study me then, you who shall lovers bee
At the next world, that is, at the next Spring,
     For I am every dead thing,
     In whom love wrought new Alchimie.
-- John Donne

Love is the most terrible of the gods.
Those deities whose demesne is among passions or pleasures
Are scarcely more than sprites or river-gods,
When shaken by the crashing of the ambrosial curls of Love.
Beauty has mastering force in its subtle hands;                                                               5
Truth seems almighty when at first you meet it,
Prostrate before dispassioned clarity
Unmoved and moving; nonetheless,
Love is the older and the stronger power.
Love twines through every other thing:                                                                          10
Through breath and warmth and light, secretly
He insinuates himself through every vein, nerve, and sinew,
Releasing nothing, no one from his grasp.
The murmur that enchants the drowsing lover
In the drugged, dreaming hours perfumed with heat;                                                       15
The Orphic voice, ringing jewel-clear among the entangling flowers;
The divine thundering, above the dread Ocean's face, below the hieratic stars:
None is afore, or after other,
None is greater, or less than another.
Love's single voice rings through,                                                                                  20
Breaking the cedars.

Yes, God is Love, though the word sticks in the throat.
I have known Love
As the honeyed scroll embittering the entrails;
As the devouring fire that terrified the sons of Israel,                                                       25
And was silent to the mantled gaze of Elijah.
I have drunk deep, deep of the fountain of the Spirit
And been cast by the Spirit into the wilderness,
Its nights without fire,
Its days empty and alien.                                                                                              30
I have wandered the dunes and wadis of the pathless waste and eaten of the stones;
I have fallen, fallen from the uttermost pinnacle of the Temple;
I have beheld all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them,
And behind them, as in a glass darkly, a strange pair of horns.
I also have sat outside the great city,                                                                             35
Unable to discern between my right hand and my left,
While the gourd curled up around my head
Only to lay its dried corpse around me in a blast of sulfurous, pentecostal wind.
I also have mourned the pillar of salt, blasphemed among the potsherds and the ashes,
Seen the ram tangled in the thicket only when my hands were drenched with scarlet.        40

I laid myself upon the floor of the Ocean,
Arms crossed for blessing upon my breast,
And listened to the cold drums of the saltwater
Beating mournfully upon rocky shores seven miles overhead.
I chanted my hymn to Love                                                                                           45
And the murmuring song ascended from sea to firmament
As I breathed deeply of the seaweed and feasted upon the old, black earth,
And I was no one to the whale and Leviathan took no heed;
So that I myself was drawn out with a hook -- assumed
From the shelter into which I had fallen, from the bowels of the brine.                               50
Risen in the open air, I stared at the quicksilvered stars,
Shaking before the dread eyes of the heavens who were given charge over me.
And then I heard the Orphic voice, saying,
"Come up here, and I shall show thee what is to take place after this,
Not by conversion of the Godhead into flesh,                                                                  55
But by the taking of the manhood into God."

The pentecostal blast returned, and clove the sea in two;
The fundament of the Ocean was laid bare,
Dry as bones in the wilderness.
The earth shook. The heavens were parted                                                                     60
And rolled up like a scroll that snaps back into its accustomed spiral
At the fracture of its final seal.
Suspended between earth and sky and sea, in the midst of the Throne
I saw the seven holy eyes, and knew
That I, like the ancient prophetess my sister,                                                                   65
Would never be believed when I prophesied unto the breath
Because I spurned the Divine Bridegroom
To whom I had promised my naked soul and body.
The tongue of fire hovers over me indeed, and speaks with the tongues of men and of angels,
But what it proclaims is sealed up with the seven thunders.                                              70
Bowing, I pulled my mantle over my head,
And murmured, "Blessed be the name of the Lord."

All this, all this is written in the terrible book of Love.
Had Delphica or Sibyl or Elijah forewarned me,
I might have refused to sell my soul to God --                                                                   75
Might have refused to write my name in Blood
Most Precious, forsworn the incanted vows and execrations.
Might, might: too late.
The Book of Life lies open and its golden pages are drenched with scarlet
(The wounded Hands bleed everlastingly);                                                                        80
The murmured vows are broken, yet persist,
Renewing themselves, a vine twining through every vein, nerve, and sinew;
Already I know the savor of heaven.
If only I could want what I would want
I should be holy, even now.                                                                                             85

"Sovegna vos a temps de ma dolor,"
Poi s'ascose nel foco che gl'affina.

Which Faith except every one do keep,
Whole and undefiled:
He cannot be saved.                                                                                                       90

+     +     +     +     +     +     +


Title. An epithalamion is a Greek term for a poem or hymn written in celebration of a marriage; Donne wrote several, as of course did multitudes of other poets. The prefix anti- means against, instead of, or in the place of.

Epigram. Taken from A Nocturnall Upon S. Lucies Day, written by Donne after the deaths of a close friend and his daughter. The specific reference it makes to alchemy (a longstanding motif in English literature) is reflected in this poem, with references to salt, sulfur, and mercury, which were believed by some alchemists to be the fundamental principles of all matter, and therefore to be capable of producing gold when properly balanced.

4. Cf. the Iliad I.644-651, where Zeus assents to a request from Thetis, the divine mother of Achilles (Cowper's translation):
"'And to assure thee more, I give the sign
Indubitable, which all fear expels
At once from heavenly minds. Nought, so confirmed,
May, after, be revers'd or rendered vain.'
He ceased, and under his dark brows the nod
Vouchsafed of confirmation. All around
The Sovereign's everlasting head his curls
Ambrosial shook, and the huge mountain reeled."

5-9. Suggesting the Platonic triad of the Beautiful, the True, and the Good, but replacing the Good with Love.

8. Suggesting Aristotle's Unmoved Mover, the universal First Cause. Cf. also the closing lines of the Paradiso: "My will and my desire were turned by love, / The love that moves the sun and the other stars."

16. Orpheus, according to Greek and later Roman mythology, had the most beautiful voice in all the world and all time: he could tame beasts with his singing, was able to withstand and drown out the Sirens who lured other men to their deaths with the beauty of their voices, and even charmed Hades, the god of the dead, into allowing him to take his departed wife Eurydice back to the upper world (in some versions of this myth, a ban is imposed which he violates, resulting in Eurydice being reclaimed by death; in others, he is simply successful, and they live out their days together). In the Roman Imperial period, there were religious mysteries devoted to Orpheus, and he was sometimes regarded or used as an analogue or parallel to Christ: the Emperor Philip, famous for tolerating Christians in contrast to his predecessors, reportedly had statues of Christ and Orpheus, among others, in his personal chapel.

18-19. A quotation from the Athanasian Creed (or Quicunque Vult), used occasionally in the public and private worship of the Anglican Communion and the Roman Rite of the Catholic Church. It forms part of the lengthy definition this creed gives of the Trinity: "And in this Trinity none is afore, or after other: none is greater, or less than another; But the whole three Persons are co-eternal together: and co-equal."

21. Cf. Psalm 29.5: The voice of the LORD breaketh the cedars; yea, the LORD breaketh the cedars of Lebanon.

24. Cf. Revelation 10.8-10: And the voice which I heard from heaven spake unto me again, and said, Go and take the little book which is open in the hand of the angel which standeth upon the sea and upon the earth. And I went unto the angel and said unto him, Give me the little book. And he said unto me, Take it, and eat it up; and it shall make thy belly bitter, but it shall be in thy mouth sweet as honey. And I took the little book out of the angel's hand, and ate it up; and it was in my mouth sweet as honey: and as soon as I had eaten it, my belly was bitter.

25. Cf. Exodus 20.18-19: And all the people saw the thunderings, and the lightnings, and the noise of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking: and when the people saw it, they removed and stood afar off. And they said unto Moses, Speak thou with us, and we will hear: but let not God speak with us, lest we die. Cf. also Hebrews 12.18-24.

26. Cf. I Kings 19.11b-13a: And, behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before the LORD; but the LORD was not in the wind: and after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake: and after the earthquake a fire; but the LORD was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice. And it was so, when Elijah heard it, that he wrapped his face in his mantle, and went out, and stood in the entering of the cave.

27ff. This sequence makes several references to the Temptation of Christ (spoken of in Mark 1.12-13, and in more detail in Matthew 4.1-11 and Luke 4.1-12). Satan is described in these accounts as tempting Jesus first to violate His fast and presume upon His miraculous power by turning stones into bread; second, to test God's election of Him by hurling Himself from the highest tower of the Temple, so that angels would come and rescue Him; and third, to accept the whole earth immediately (rather than enduring the Passion), but as Satan's gift and at the price of worshiping him.

35-38. Containing several allusions to the book of Jonah. Though more famous for the story of the whale, Jonah's mission as a prophet had been to preach repentance to the Assyrian capital, Nineveh. When he did, the people repented; Jonah, who hated the Assyrians, was furious, and went outside the city to wait and watch, hoping that God would destroy the city anyway. The last few verses of the book are specially relevant: And the LORD God prepared a gourd, and made it to come up over Jonah, that it might be a shadow over his head, to deliver him from his grief. So Jonah was exceeding glad of the gourd. But God prepared a worm when the morning rose the next day, and it smote the gourd that it withered. And it came to pass, when the sun did arise, that God prepared a vehement east wind; and the sun beat upon the head of Jonah, that he fainted, and wished himself to die, and said, It is better for me to die than to live. And God said to Jonah, Doest thou well to be angry for the gourd? And he said, I do well to be angry, even unto death. Then said the LORD, Thou hast had pity on the gourd, for the which thou hast not labored, neither madest it grow; which came up in a night, and perished in a night: and should I not spare Nineveh, that great city, wherein are more than sixscore thousand persons that cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand; and also much cattle?

39. Alluding, first, to the story of Lot's wife being transformed into a pillar of salt during his family's escape from the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19.24-29), and second, to the story of Job, particularly 2.7-10: So went Satan forth from the presence of the LORD, and smote Job with sore boils from the sole of his foot unto his crown. And he took a potsherd to scrape himself withal; and he sat down among the ashes. And his wife said unto him, Dost thou still retain thine integrity? curse God, and die. But he said unto her, Thou speakest as one of the foolish women speaketh. What? shall we receive good at the hand of God, and shall we not receive evil? In all this did not Job sin with his lips.

40. An allusion to the famous story of the sacrifice of Isaac. In the Biblical account (Genesis 22.1-19) Isaac is spared at the last moment by the intervention of an angel sent by God, and Abraham offers a ram which he found tangled in a thicket nearby (as a substitute for Isaac, or as a thank-offering, or both). It is possible that the story was told at least in part to counteract the tradition in Palestine at the time of sacrificing infants and children to the local gods, Molech particularly.

42. In the Roman Catholic Church, persons ineligible to receive the Eucharist (whether due to unconfessed mortal sin or because of being out of full communion with the Pope) may receive a blessing from the ministering priest instead, to signify which the arms are crossed in an X shape over the chest; this tradition is of course also observed for the burial of the dead.

47. Alluding to two of T. S. Eliot's works. His first poem ever published, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, closes with the lines "We have lingered in the chambers of the sea / By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown / Till human voices wake us, and we drown." Murder In the Cathedral, a much later play about the martyrdom of St. Thomas Becket (written some years after his conversion the Anglo-Catholic faith and during the rise of the Nazi state in Germany), contains several extended lyrical passages uttered by a chorus who are anticipating the murder of the saint, and at one point they utter the line, "I have lain on the floor of the sea and breathed with the breathing of the sea-anemone, swallowed with ingurgitation of the sponge. I have lain in the soil and criticized the worm."

48. Another reference to Jonah, followed by another reference to Job. The precise identity of Leviathan is unknown (a crocodile has been suggested); the pertinent verse is 41.1: Canst thou draw out leviathan with an hook? or his tongue with a cord which thou lettest down? The verse comes during an extended passage in which God rebukes Job for presumption.

52. The stars, in both the Bible and Judeo-Christian literature, are traditional symbols of the angelic host. This particular line suggests Revelation 4.6b, 8: And in the midst of the throne, and round about the throne, were four beasts full of eyes before and behind. ... And the four beasts had each of them six wings about him; and they were full of eyes within: and they rest not day and night, saying, Holy, holy, holy, LORD God Almighty, which was and is and is to come.

54. A quotation from Revelation 4.1, in which St. John the Divine, the seer who penned the book, is summoned into heaven to receive the vision.

55-56. Another quotation from the Athanasian Creed. Having defined the Trinity in its first half, it defines the Incarnation in the second half. These lines come from this sequence, describing Christ: "Who although he be God and Man: yet he is not two, but one Christ; One, not by conversion of the Godhead into flesh: but by taking of the Manhood into God; One altogether, not by confusion of substance: but by unity of Person."

57. Suggesting the parting of the Red Sea; cf. Exodus 14.21: And Moses stretched out his hand over the sea: and the LORD caused the sea to go back by a strong east wind all that night, and made the sea dry land, and the waters were divided.

59. Suggesting Ezekiel 37.1-14, in which the prophet receives a vision of a valley full of skeletons, to which he is directed to prophesy. They are restored to the state of full bodies, though still dead. He is then ordered to prophesy to the wind, or breath (the same Hebrew word), which he does, and it enters them and brings them to life. The description of the angels in Revelation, already alluded to, contains several deliberate echoes of other passages in Ezekiel.

60-62. The image of the heavens being rolled up like a scroll is a regular motif in Biblical prophecy and apocalypse, which has been transmitted into hymnody, sermons, and popular imagery. Revelation 5.1-8.1 contains an extended passage in which the Lamb (Christ) receives a scroll from the hand of God, sealed with seven seals, which he breaks one by one.

64. A more specific reference to the scroll sequence in Revelation; note specifically 5.6: And I beheld, and lo, in the midst of the throne and of the four beasts, stood a Lamb as it had been slain, having seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven Spirits of God sent out into all the earth.

65ff. Suggesting Cassandra. In the mythology of Troy, Cassandra was the sister of Paris and Hector, and was a priestess of Apollo. She promised herself to the god, for which he granted her the gift of prophecy, but she then broke her promise. Furious, but unable to withdraw the gift he had given, Apollo added to it a curse that, though always right in her predictions, she would never be believed.

69. References to the outpouring of the Holy Ghost upon the infant Church at Pentecost (Acts 2.1-4ff) and to St. Paul's famous hymn to Christian love in I Corinthians 13.

70. Another allusion to Revelation, this time to 10.4: When the seven thunders had uttered their voices, I was about to write: and I heard a voice from heaven saying unto me, Seal up those things which the seven thunders uttered, and write them not. No further reference is made to this enigmatic verse.

71-72. References back to Elijah and Job (cf. Job 1.21).

74. Delphica, i.e. the oracle of Delphi, famous for being Apollo's personal oracle and utterly infallible -- as well as for giving exceedingly cryptic replies to inquiries. The Sibyl was a Roman parallel, located in southern Italy. Both, as well as the prophet Elijah and many other classical and Judeo-Christian figures, are depicted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

75ff. Suggesting (and subverting) the tradition of pacts made with the Devil, usually aimed at increasing one's wealth and power. The most famous of these in legend is, of course, Faust, whose story has been told repeatedly for centuries.

79. The Book of Life is alluded to a few times throughout the New Testament, and is an image of those who are in the favor of God. The most famous reference to it is doubtless Revelation 20.11-15, where the Last Judgment is described, at which absence from the Book of Life is the condition for being cast into the lake of fire.

82. Suggesting the gourd already mentioned, but also John 15.5 and its surrounding context: I am the vine, ye are the branches: he that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing.

83. Suggesting another passage from Murder In the Cathedral, this time spoken by the martyred archbishop: "I have had a tremor of bliss, a wink of heaven, a whisper, / And I would no longer be denied; all things / Proceed to a joyful consummation."

86-87. A quotation from the Italian original of Dante's Purgatorio (XXVI.147-148). A loose translation would be, "'O think at times of how I suffer here,' then plunged him in the fire that refines them." The speaker of the first line is a famous poet, Arnaut Daniel, whom Dante meets in Purgatory in the place where the stain of lust is purified out of penitent souls through fire. These lines, in Italian, also make occasional appearances in Eliot's verse, in fragments, notably in the closing section of The Waste Land and part IV of Ash Wednesday.

88-90. These lines are quoted from the beginning and the end of the Athanasian Creed.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Five Quick Takes


February is turning out to be quite a busy month, so I am expecting I will be posting rather less than usual. One of the things that has made it busy, and a very great pleasure, was a capital visit from a friend of mine: Joseph Prever, author of the blog Steve Gershom. If you aren't yet acquainted with his writing I strongly recommend it -- I've modeled my own writing on his to some extent. He was one of the first authors I came across (along with Melinda Selmys, who quoted me in her latest book!) who spoke about the experiences of homosexuality and Catholicism in an intelligent, winsome, authentic way. He is also just a pretty cool guy, and very enthusiastic about kung fu.

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I would solicit your prayers for my parish, readers. We are going through a transitional period: our pastor is changing. The Ordinariate of the Chair of Peter, of which we are a part, is very small (something less than forty parishes nationwide, I believe) and comparatively new, so we don't have very many priests to go around. We're being well taken care of in the meanwhile, but it's hard -- transitions always are -- and I don't mind saying that I personally tend to get anxious about this sort of thing; I kind of hate change in general.

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One thing that Mr. Prever and I happen to share is a taste for Charles Williams, one of the most neglected -- and, in his day, most beloved -- members of the Inklings. Williams was a novelist, a theologian, something of a mystic, and a literary critic; he wrote a good deal about Dante, and in fact Dorothy Sayers (whom I have quoted here several times) dedicated her translation of Dante's Comedy to Williams. There is a passage in his incomparable study The Figure of Beatrice wherein he goes over the part of the Inferno where Dante presents to us, among the damned, an adulterous couple called Paolo and Francesca. The point of the passage, however, as Williams clearly perceived, is something rather subtler than simply the eternal punishment of choosing unchastity at the expense of God:
This is ... probably the most famous episode in the Commedia, the episode of Paolo and Francesca -- which is always quoted as an example of Dante's tenderness. So, no doubt, it is, but it is not here for that reason nor even for the more important reason of poetically lightening the monotonous gloom of hell. It has a much more important place; it presents the first tender, passionate, and half-excusable consent of the soul to sin. 
Up to this point (Inf. V) the Imagination has been in suspense; it has not chosen -- whether from a shameful shrinking from choice into a spiritual cosiness, or from its not being confronted with this religious choice. It is now shown as choosing, and the choice is made as plausible as it could possibly be. ... What indeed was the sin? It was a forbidden love? yes, but Dante ... does not leave it at that. He so manages the very description, he so heightens the excuse, that the excuse reveals itself as precisely the sin. The old name for lechery was luxuria ... and it is ... luxury, indulgence, self-yielding, which is the sin, and the opening out of hell. The persistent parleying with the occasion of sin, the sweet prolonged laziness of love, is the first surrender of the soul to hell -- small but certain. The formal sin here is the adultery of the two lovers; the poetic sin is their shrinking from the adult love demanded of them, and their refusal of the opportunity of glory. -- Pp. 117-118
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It is a very strange thing that so many people (like myself) should be uncomfortable in their own skin. After all, it isn't as though we've ever been anybody else; surely we ought to be comfortable with ourselves at the very least? Yet the fact that such discomfort is even possible, let alone a familiar experience, strikes me as significant. It suggests the dissonance between what we perceive ourselves to be and what we want to be -- or, as Chesterton (I think) says somewhere, the Church's teaching that something better than we have ever known is not only better for us than ourselves, but more natural to us than ourselves.

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I saw the Lego Movie. It was so much fun. A bit hackneyed, theme-wise; but the childlike sensation of watching Lego graphics more than made up for that. It is my new favorite action movie. Go and see it.

Everything is awesooooome!
Everything is cool when you're part of a team!

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Queer Identity, Excursus: A Response to Brandon Ambrosino

Brandon Ambrosino's recent, highly controversial essay in which he says "I choose to be gay" takes Macklemore & Ryan Lewis' extremely popular song "Same Love" as its jumping-off point. The chorus, sung by Mary Lambert, runs thus:

And I can't change
Even if I tried
Even if I wanted to
And I can't change
Even if I tried
Even if I wanted to
My love, my love, my love
She keeps me warm

Man, sung by a woman, those lyrics come off as totally lesb-- wait a minute.

It's easy to see why, especially for those of us with experiences in the ex-gay world and/or a strictly religious upbringing, these words would resonate. (Personally I dislike the song, not on grounds of its politics, but because I find it hamfistedly preachy and boring -- if I want a gay anthem I'll go to "Born This Way" or "Titanium" or "Two Men In Love," or several other songs. Hell, if even if I want Macklemore I'm gonna go for "Thrift Shop" over "Same Love" any day of the week.) Mr. Ambrosino, however, has the following to say:
[T]he chorus bugs me. By its logic, none of us has any control over our sexual identities. We are what we are, and there's not a damn thing we can do about that, so let's just stop trying to change. That's wrong. It's time for the LGBT community to stop fearing the word "choice," and to reclaim the dignity of sexual autonomy. ... To say it rather crassly: I've convinced a few men to try out my sexuality, but I've never managed to get them to try on my skin color. In other words, one's sexuality isn't as biologically determined as race. ... Whenever someone accepts me merely because she feels obligated to do so by my genetic code, I feel degraded rather than empowered. It's like saying, "You can't help it, sugar. You were born this way. Me, I was born with astigmatism and a wonky knee. We can't change our limitations even if we wanted to." ... I can't help wondering whether Macklemore would have thought I deserved a song even if I told him that I could, in fact, change this if I tried, if I wanted to.
Whether you agree with his approach or not, I think he makes a compelling point. Is it, in fact, that big a victory for the gay rights movement if the reason that LGBT people have been accepted is because "they can't help it"? For that matter, is it even particularly secure? The fact that rats can't help being rats doesn't seem to motivate many people not to put out traps. We live in one of the more tolerant cultures worldwide -- right now. Tomorrow may be an altogether different story.

Now, I shrink from saying that "being gay is a choice" without further explanation. But I shrink equally from saying "you're born gay" without further explanation. I don't believe either of those ways of describing sexual orientation do justice to the reality -- not just because some people do experience sexual fluidity, but because I think the kind of things that sexual orientation and identity are, are not exactly inborn or chosen.

"No, it's jam every other day. Jam tomorrow, and jam yesterday, but never jam to-day."

I realize that sounds weird, at best; would to God ye could bear with me a little in my folly. My own belief -- or maybe it'd be better to call it a hunch -- is that the confluence of choice, determinism, and identity is a complex reality in which no one element, considered alone, can adequately explain the outcome. Dorothy Sayers, writing about creating characters in her novels and plays, puts the matter well:
[I]f the characters and the situation are rightly conceived together, as integral parts of the same unity, then there will be no need to force them to the right solution of that situation. If each is allowed to develop in conformity with its proper nature, all will arrive of their own accord at a point of unity, which will be the same unity that pre-existed in the original idea. In language to which we are accustomed in other connections, neither predestination nor free will is everything, but, if the will acts freely in accordance with its true nature, it achieves by grace and not by judgment the eternal will of its maker, though possibly by a process unlike, and longer than, that which might have been imposed upon it by force. ... I could add a further example of the same kind of thing. In Murder Must Advertise [one of her mystery novels] I undertook (not very successfully) to present a contrast of two "cardboard" worlds, equally fictitious -- that of advertising and the world of the post-war Bright Young People. ... I mentioned this intention to a reader, who instantly replied, "Yes; and Peter Wimsey, who represents reality, never appears in either world except in disguise." It was perfectly true; and I had never noticed it. With all its defects of realism, there had been some measure of integral truth about the book's Idea, since it issued, without my conscious connivance, in a true symbolism. -- The Mind of the Maker, pp. 75, 77
I don't think that identity, sexual or otherwise, is either primarily deterministic or primarily chosen. I think that the thing that God has made us specifically to be, our individual identity (as opposed to what we ontologically are, the universal category: human beings), is something objectively there*; but the extent to which we lay hold of that objective identity is determined partly by external factors -- some of those factors, in a fallen world, including sin and the effects of sin -- and partly, also, by our own choices. Not to turn this into a quotefest, but I'm going to turn this into a quotefest:
What am I? I am myself a word spoken by God. Can God speak a word that does not have any meaning? Yet am I sure that the meaning of my life is the meaning God intends for it? Does God impose a meaning on my life from the outside, through event, custom, routine, law, system, impact with others in society? Or am I called to create from within, with him, with his grace, a meaning which reflects his truth and makes me his "word" spoken freely in my personal situation? My true identity lies hidden in God's call to my freedom and my response to him. This means I must use my freedom in order to love, with full responsibility and authenticity, not merely receiving a form imposed on me by external forces ... but directing my love to the personal reality of my brother, and embracing God's will in its naked, often unpenetrable mystery. -- Thomas Merton, Contemplative Prayer, pp. 46-47
Choice is an act of creation, and we are made in the image of the Creator; the only thing we are told about God before being told that we are made in His image is precisely that He makes things. But God alone makes out of nothing. We make out of things that are already there. That is why our creation can be authentic or inauthentic, including our co-creation of our very selves. The freedom of ourselves as makers of ourselves, the integrity of the self which is our medium of working, and the purpose of beauty and worthiness in the final self that is made -- the artist, the medium, the artwork -- must all be respected; and in this trinity none is afore, or after other; none is greater, or less than another; but the whole three are coeternal together, and coequal.

It's all quite straightforward.

Hence, I don't think it quite right to say that gayness is primarily a chosen thing. And I'm not at all certain that Mr. Ambrosino was saying that it is primarily chosen -- he is careful throughout to state that he and some other queer people experience at least some degree of choice in their sexual identity, but also says that he doesn't dispute those who feel that their sexuality is inborn. From the small amount (out of a great deal) that I've read of his critics on this subject, they would have done well to read more carefully.

While, simultaneously, I shy away from the idea that gayness is fixed and immutable on account of being deterministic, biologically or otherwise. There do seem to be good reasons for thinking that biology, though not genetics exactly, plays a large role in sexual orientation, but that, to my mind, does not explain it, for the same reason that appealing to paint and plaster is not an adequate explanation for The Last Judgment if the idea of Michelangelo as the painter is excluded: true, he could hardly use tools that weren't there or weren't appropriate to the piece, but that just is not the whole story. Or, as C. S. Lewis' Ramandu tells Eustace when the latter informs him that "In our world a star is a huge ball of flaming gas": "Even in your world, my son, that is not what a star is but only what it is made of."

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame.
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells,
Each hung bell's bow swung
Finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells.
Selves, goes itself; Myself it speaks and spells,
Crying, What I do is me: for that I came.

I say more: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: that keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God's eye what in God's eye he is --
Christ. For Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his,
To the Father through the features of men's faces.

-- Gerard Manley Hopkins, S. J.

*To use Existentialist language, if you care for that sort of thing, I believe that essence precedes existence, rather than the other way around. This is one of the reasons that, although I get a lot out of certain Existentialists -- Kierkegaard especially -- I don't think I fundamentally am one. Or am I? It does sometimes seem more like a mood than a philosophical school, and I've had the mood pretty bad for something like sixteen years now.