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.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

A Plea to Deacon Jim Russell

Deacon Russell,

Grace and peace be with you, in the name of our Beloved.

We haven't interacted hitherto, save maybe by chance via comboxes. In the wake of your recent article on Mr Prever, which of course has already prompted other responses, I wanted to address a personal appeal to you.

I don't propose to examine your pieces at Crisis or Catholic Vote in detail; I loathe conflict, and even just watching the dispute between yourself and Mr Prever, who is a personal friend of mine, has been positively draining. (I've linked to them, so that readers can judge whether I have misconstrued what you have to say -- obviously you yourself are the best judge of that, but hardly need links to do so.) You've objected, both in the latter piece and in the comboxes of the replies penned by Melinda Selmys and Janet Smith, to replies that distort your meaning. I don't wish to do that; that is one of the reasons that I don't want to write a polemic. I would rather appeal to you from the heart, as a brother and indeed an elder brother, being a man in Holy Orders, to conduct yourself differently toward us.

I cannot read your heart. I don't claim to. But I am able to tell you about the practical effect of what you write, and, whatever your intentions, the practical effects matter too.

To begin with, you've been deeply hurtful. I can easily accept that this wasn't intentional, and it certainly isn't an argument. But, as a Catholic, it still ought to matter to you. Love may be willing to hurt the one it loves, if nothing else will serve to protect it, as a mother is willing to frighten her child with a scolding rather than see him run out into traffic; but love is never eager to do so, it always seeks to find the way to cause the least pain and to relieve it quickly. You've left the impression -- perhaps a false impression, but one that you ought to want to correct -- that you don't care one way or the other about hurting us.

This leads into one of the bad facts of preaching, one that I made mention of in my own article at Crisis in 2014. If it doesn't cost you anything to proclaim a truth, to the people who have to pay for that truth, what you say will always ring hollow. Is this fair? No. But it's the way things are.

Now, you've distinguished, and rightly, between public discourse and pastoral practice. But, while the two can be distinguished, they can't be separated. If the people who need you to pastor them see you discourse publicly in a way that makes them believe that you dislike them, scorn them, pass judgment on them, are scared of them, or are disgusted by them, they will never come to you to be pastored. I can tell you I wouldn't have done, as a scared teenager; I'd have been likelier to do what I very nearly did, that is, run away from the faith altogether, unable to bear being hurt any more. The fact that you never meant to hurt me, or would have treated me differently in person and in a pastoral context, is something I wouldn't have stuck around to find out.

And it is possible, after all, to conduct public discourse and even debate with courtesy, without sacrificing either the truth or frankness about it. It takes a lot of patience and a lot of energy; but it's far more effective.

Brother, Deacon, I beg you, I implore you, on the edge of tears: take thought for the people who might need you -- for comfort, for support, for shelter, for courage -- whom you may be frightening away by the way you write. There is no embarrassment to be suffered by reconsidering your approach to either public discourse or pastoral practice. Surely all of us have room to grow in wisdom, in intelligence, in charity, and in divine grace.

And I would ask you, too, to take thought for us, the Spiritual Friendship crowd -- if I may reasonably extend its mantle to Mr Prever, and presumptuously extend it to myself: we have to pay the price of this truth every day, and not only in attempting a difficult and, for many of us, unexpected and unwanted vocation. We are attacked by fellow Catholics (I am not here speaking of yourself) for every facet of our trial, and attacked by LGBT people and allies outside the Church for believing what she teaches and saying so. To be written of as you have written, and declared to be under your watch for our errors, is bitterly discouraging. When admitted orthodoxy and chastity are not enough to protect us from censure, many of us ask ourselves, why do we struggle at all? How are we to have confidence in the love you profess? We need you to be in solidarity with us: to listen to us, to bind our wounds, to embrace us. Someone like me -- an ideal target for attack, given that I have trampled the tattered remnants of my chastity thirty times over -- needs it more than anybody. Please, please reconsider.

May the peace of the Lord Jesus be with you.


Monday, August 17, 2015

The Dazzling Web of Homoerotic Desire

Trusting someone is maybe the scariest thing in the world. Getting to know somebody isn't scary, at least not usually, and once we know somebody it's a lot easier to trust them; but that's because trust means, precisely, relying on them for something (whatever it may be) that we don't know about and can't control.

Seems reliable.

Once we know a person, we feel able to predict their behavior, and that makes the step across a dark chasm that trust consists in much easier to take -- it shrinks the chasm, so to speak. But there's always an element of uncertainty and powerlessness involved; you're always vulnerable. It's tempting, on that basis, to trust nobody at all; until you meet someone who's made a serious attempt at living like that. Trusting other people is something we flat out need to do as human beings, or we become psychically sick.

The same, on Christian premises, is true of God, and indeed infinitely truer of Him than of any other being. To trust Him, whom we cannot hear or see or touch save by miraculous intervention (and, as the word miracle implies, such events are rare), is a more threatening and blacker jump than any other; and what's worse, making a decision about Him isn't optional. In deciding not to trust this or that fellow human, you can make an unfair or unwise decision, of course, but refusing to trust one person doesn't necessarily mean you're trusting nobody -- there are always other people you can rely on. But there's only the one reality-as-a-whole, and only one God that keeps it all going. The only alternative to being is nothingness. The only alternative to trusting God is to have nowhere, in all of existence, to flee to.

That's what Catholicism has confronted me with as a gay man, trying to come to terms with what I believe about sex. Because I believe that a God is the best explanation of the universe, that Jesus is the best explanation of God, and that Catholicism is the best explanation of Jesus, I accordingly believe that what the Church teaches about sex -- specifically, that it must never be closed to the possibility of bringing new life into the world, and that acts which can't do that are therefore a wrong use of our sexuality. So my brain, and (to a much lesser extent) my will.

But my heart just isn't there, as I've often written of here before; and I'm left with one foot on either side of an impossibly wide, terribly deep crevasse, with no ground in sight, being pulled into pieces by the tension. I could never deliberately contradict what I'm convinced is true (although I'm quite capable of ignoring it), and so I can't draw the one foot backward over the crevasse; and yet it seems utterly impossible to pick up the other and pull it to the far side -- that if I do, I'll slip and fall and go spinning down into the void, helpless. That God won't catch me.

There are so many things that make this a challenge: it's difficult enough in itself, for fallen creatures like ourselves, to believe that God knows and loves us (sometimes it's far easier to believe one of the two than both together ...), and our lived experience of hurt and confusion only makes it tougher. Dealing with clinical depression, severe loneliness, cutting, and eventually rape, all before I turned fourteen, made it the next thing to impossible to credit the doctrine that God wanted what's best for me and was willing to sacrifice Himself to give it.

I do believe -- partly because my intellect is satisfied, and for somebody like me there's quite simply no way around that; partly because, even on a heart level, I'd sooner believe (as Christianity and especially Catholicism teaches) that my sufferings have a meaning that I don't understand, than that they mean simply nothing.

But on the other hand, emotionally, I can't make sense of Catholic teaching here. I mean, it's not as though it was my idea to be gay, or to make homosexual sex intrinsically infertile, or to link sex with fertility, or ... and at once, my brain retorts, The woman whom thou gavest to be with me, she gave me of the tree, and I did eat. And then, more dimly, Who is this that darkeneth counsel by words without knowledge? Canst thou bind the sweet influences of Pleiades, or loose the bands of Orion? I can't see much of a future in arguing with God about His unfairness in structuring reality as He did, since I can hardly calculate the consequences even of my own actions within that framework -- let alone what would happen if it were altered.

Don't say I didn't warn you.

But it isn't only a question of a rebelling heart -- that, certainly, but there's far more at stake. Seeing a beautiful man doesn't just get me going sexually; it's awe-inspiring, even humbling -- it evokes joy and glory and gratitude, not just arousal, still less objectification. Homosexuality is no more reducible to lust than heterosexuality is reducible to lust. Much of the Western literary tradition, particularly Dante, has been about that moment of love in which a man perceives a woman like a flash of magic; there are, equally, moments in which a man can perceive another man like a flash of magic.

This seems to me to be, for most people, causally connected with sexual desire, though it is certainly not the same thing as sexual desire; it's more like veneration. (This is part of why I'm content to refer to eroticism, and homoeroticism in particular, as capable of sanctification -- I don't think eros is simply about sex, and definitely not simply about sin.) I tend to think of it as seeing, with the eyes of the heart, the archetypal nature that every created, imperfect thing is striving to be; its ideal identity in the mind of God, which it partly reveals and partly falls short of in the reality that we're most familiar with. The erotic vision is a vision of another plane of reality: no more real than the actual beloved, but also no less. Love is blind because it is dazzled by this archetypal light. Love is always Platonic.

And I don't, won't, can't believe that this delight in male beauty is a bad thing. To take joy in something God has made and to say with Him, "Behold, this is very good," is right. It may be entangled with other things that aren't right, as all our love and obedience for God is entangled with self-interest; but this veneration of masculine beauty is a good thing. His glory is not reserved to woman, but seen equally in both sexes.

But it's this disentangling of the bad and good that is so difficult. The web of homoerotic desire doesn't consist in a single thread woven around itself, but in a multitude of threads -- sexual, romantic, affective, maybe even spiritual -- that cross and countercharge one another, morally and mentally. It's like all human sexuality, really: it's complicated.

The Lady of Shalott by William Holman Hunt, 1905.
"And there she weaves by night and day / A magic web, with colors gay ..." -- Alfred, Lord Tennyson

That's the chasm. That's where trust comes in. Do I really believe that God, who knows my heart and loves me -- start again. First, do I believe that God knows me and loves me? And second, do I believe that, for every good thing He asks me to renounce, whether it be companionship or sexual fulfillment or children or whatever else, its crucifixion will be followed by a supernatural resurrection?

The simple answer is, no, I don't believe those things. Not with my heart. I acknowledge that they are true, but that isn't really the same thing. I'm just so scared of the loneliness, the uncertainty, and the feeling of purposelessness that go with my shabby attempt at celibacy. I can't really tell whether all this is why I don't trust Him, or comes from not trusting Him.

Nor do I know my way out. I mean, Jesus is the way out, I know that -- but I don't know how to be with Him or in Him in a way that results in me trusting God. (Not that I haven't been told, a hundred times, mostly by people who so far as I know haven't been in the same difficulties themselves.) I can't think of anything to do but watch and pray; I can't open my heart by myself, and I have no idea when He will. That does call for trust. It's scary, and it's tiring. But where would I go? Back is not an answer for me; it's a non-solution, a shrug, a declining of the problem. And I just can't bring myself to do that. Whether it's stubbornness or divine grace or insatiable curiosity, I just can't. It isn't onward, or stop, or backward. It's just onward -- with no knowing what that will consist in.

Time for a nap.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Five Quick Takes


In Camille Paglia's interview late last month at, she displayed a great deal of what makes her one of my favorite people in the world. Her incisive intellect, boldness, detachment, and honesty should be hallmarks of everyone who wants to be a thinking person. I've rarely found it anywhere else, except from Andrew Sullivan when he wrote for The Dish. Some samples of her brilliance, e.g. on religion:
I'm speaking here as an atheist. I don't believe there is a God, but I respect every religion deeply. All the great world religions contain a complex system of beliefs regarding the nature of the universe and human life that is far more profound than anything that liberalism has produced. We have a whole generation of young people who are clinging to politics and to politicized visions of sexuality for their belief system. They see nothing but politics, but politics is tiny. There is a huge metaphysical realm out there that involves eternal principles of life and death. ... The real problem is a lack of knowledge of religion as well as a lack of respect for religion. I find it completely hypocritical for people in academe or the media to demand understanding of Muslim beliefs and yet be so derisive and dismissive of the devout Christian beliefs of Southern conservatives. ... Exactly what are these people offering in place of religion? In my system, I offer art -- and the whole history of spiritual commentary on the universe. ... [M]y generation in college during the 1960s was suffused with Buddhism, which came from the 1950s beatniks. Hinduism was in the air from every direction ... So I really thought we were entering this great period of religious syncretism, where the religions of the world were going to merge. But all of a sudden, it disappeared! ... Young people have nothing to enlighten them, which is why they're clinging so much to politicized concepts, which give them a sense of meaning and direction.
And on politics and the media:
Liberalism has sadly become a knee-jerk ideology ... They think that their views are the only rational ones, and everyone else is not only evil but financed by the Koch brothers. It's so simplistic! ... When the first secret Planned Parenthood video was released in mid-July, anyone who looks only at liberal media was kept completely in the dark about it, even after the second video was released. But the videos were being run nonstop all over conservative talk shows ... It was a huge and disturbing story, but there was total silence in the liberal media. That kind of censorship was shockingly unprofessional. [They] were trying to bury the story by ignoring it. Now I am a former member of Planned Parenthood and a strong supporter of unconstrained reproductive rights. But I was horrified and disgusted by those videos and immediately felt there were serious breaches of ethics in the conduct of Planned Parenthood officials. But here's my point: it is everyone's obligation, whatever your political views, to look at both liberal and conservative news sources every single day. You need a full range of viewpoints to understand what is going on in the world.
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I've been fumbling my way toward some outline of economics for ... well, about fifteen years now, I guess. It's hard work -- I have no head for it -- but, in the hundred years and some stretching from Rerum Novarum in 1891 to Laudato Si' this year, the Church has been grappling with the human consequences of the industrial and technological revolutions of the last three centuries.

The main thing that I feel both the capitalist and the socialist trends have lost touch with is that economics, in addition to being a science (sort of), is also a humanity: its subject matter is precisely human choice and well-being, and to isolate it from our nature and our needs -- making it all a matter of mathematics, of outlay versus intake and tax versus public spending -- is to subjugate mankind to his own machines. That is the real robot uprising (get out of here, Terminator) of which novels and movies are a pale, unconscious, yet terrifyingly true reflection; and it will probably not be able to actually destroy mankind, but it has certainly crushed the spirits of many men by robbing them of worthwhile work.

No, no one asked for you, Elysium. You sucked, and are irrelevant.

For man needs work. Work, not wages used to be a slogan of the Left, and it fits right into the creation pattern: man was made to till the garden and keep it, and to be deprived of the meaningful, creative work that that phrase symbolizes is to be condemned to perpetual boredom. Work became frustrated in its effects by the Fall, but it did not essentially change its nature, just as man became corrupted by sin but did not cease to be man. To say that man needs worthwhile work is saying that man needs purpose, and economics, isolated from the idea of purpose as it is from human nature -- relying almost entirely on his resources and his wants for its material -- is just the OS for the Matrix.

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Anna Magdalena of The Catholic Transgender has posted a link to this excellent article on Public Discourse (the online journal of the Witherspoon Institute, which was heavily, and it seems justly, criticized for its publication of the Regnerus study on same-sex parenting), dealing with trans issues from a scientific angle, and coming out with an uncharacteristically generous stance for a conservative body to publish. Jennifer Gruenke, the author, writes:
... [W]e know that there are multiple pathways of sexual development and that they are not all regulated together. One pathway is the development of the gonads into either ovaries or testes; another is the development of external genitalia, and another is the development of the brain to be predisposed toward one gender. We know that the gonads and external genitals can differ from each other, and that both can differ from chromosomal sex. So we ought to expect to find people whose brain pathway differs from the other pathways. ... And I would predict that people with such a mutation would look just like cases of transgendered people. ... [C]hromosomal reductionism is an unacceptable account of sex.
This is only one step forward; where it leaves trans and intersex people theologically, I don't know (though Melinda Selmys, some time ago, posted a thought-provoking piece on the subject). I'm hopeful that the Church's grasp of this subject (and my own!) will continue to develop.

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Counterclockwise from bottom left: the dormition, assumption, and coronation of the Mother of God.
Illumination from the Ramsey Psalter, an English psalter of the late tenth century.

I always get excited as Assumption draws close (reminder to my papist readers: it isn't a holy day of obligation this year because it falls on a Saturday, but it's a good idea to go to Mass on the 15th anyway). It's long been one of my favorite feasts in the Church's year; I'm not sure why, except that it's just so cool. The idea of a person being taken into heaven bodily, like Enoch and Elijah (and just maybe St John), has always exercised an immense fascination for me. Traditional tales like the cave of the Seven Sleepers, though bearing all the hallmarks of fiction, are addressed to the same interest in a purely literary way.

The importance of the feast is not simply about the Blessed Virgin Mary, still less about assumption as either a literary or a historical phenomenon. Mary is an exemplar of the whole Church, both the Daughter of Zion and the Jerusalem above, which is the mother of us all. What has been given first and most vividly to her is, in the end, the reward of every Christian; that is, of everyone who consents to be reconciled to God. Indeed, to a Catholic, she is a prototype of humanity: where Christ is both Man to God and God to Man, Mary is more particularly Man to Christ, the Eve to His Adam and the Queen to His King -- for these are the gifts that God has always had to give to mankind. We are archetypally involved in the Assumption.

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Lately, I've been thinking regularly of (and giggling at) the wonderful line that C. S. Lewis gave to Trumpkin the Dwarf in Prince Caspian: "I haven't much use for lions that are Talking Lions and don't talk, and friendly lions though they don't do us any good, and whopping big lions though nobody can see them."

I hope that God isn't offended by my giggles. Given that He is a whopping big lion, I'm sure He can handle Himself (though of course the thing to be worried about is that He can also handle me). Faith is hard; making the best of doubt seems, sometimes, to be the only thing to do. And who knows -- one day, perhaps I'll be able to laugh at the fact that, once upon a time, I needed to bother to laugh at doubt.

Monday, August 3, 2015

The Adoration of the Image of God

Words fail me.
Hair like brown twisted wild reeds
That grow in pure wide lonely places
To shimmer in the summer sun, the heart's heat.
Your bones, your skin are white rock --
Marble, alabaster, pearl, such small names
For an archetype incarnate.
Teach sculptors, painters, doctors, architects,
To know proportion, balance, and perfection.
I can feel, I would feel
The warmth of your chin on the back of my hand,
The faintest abrasion against the skin on the tips of my fingers
As I brush by your lip, lingering;
I can smell your scent, your salt, the heat of your hair,
I taste your eyelids (turn away thine eyes from me, for they have overcome me);
Words fail me.

Grey sapphires look back at me, and I am a brown twisted wild reed.

The shape of your shoulder, the pulse of your chest,
Ideal and actual, beauty (these signs are what they signify).
The gentle skin where the lips shut sucking
At an image of life, twining sighs of life that moves with the passion of dying,
Bronze belly, lips and hands traverse muscle, muscle, muscle
Obediently; rejoice (again I say rejoice);
Hips sliding on their stone unbreakable frame, words fail me,
Smooth hairs and sinews, strong, beautiful;
Your strength is here
Your strength that is weakness, the strength that sums us up
In a concrete passionate act, heat to heat,
Exposing our innermost desires, the wand that lifts the veil of our mystery.
Your sex erect, yearning, daring,
Wishing and fearing to be known
For to be known in nakedness is to be loved or hated
And to be wounded in this fleshly head is to be wounded in the heart of the spirit.

Grey sapphires look back at me, and you are a brown twisted wild reed.

I would pour out my love, my adoration of the image of God, but
Words fail me;
I bury my head in you, bury your head in me,
Your strength is worthy, your beauty is holy,
I would say with every touch taste smell and look.
I receive your weakness into me because you are strong,
I take your strength into me because you are need.

Nothing suffices. I see no other way
Worthily to worship your beauty, I cannot refrain
From wishing to possess feel sleep beside you within you around you
Masculine maculate immaculate glory,
Archetype incarnate.

Jesus Christ.
What have we done? What have I done?
He looks just like You.

They all do.