August and September's extended conflict between certain authors who shall remain nameless and the Side B/Spiritual Friendship community left me feeling extremely hurt, angry, and bewildered. The refusal to heed explanation and argument from people who live directly in the tension between the queer world and the Church, and are thus more or less forced to know what we are talking about, was the source of the bewilderment; the hints at heresy despite our unanimous orthodoxy, and the apparently total and callous disregard for the devastating effects of their language on actual gay-identifying people, especially young people, was the the source of the anger and the hurt. Ron and Beverley Belgau's address at the World Meeting of Families last week helped some -- it felt like a vote of confidence, or at the least a listening ear (which is one of the things we have so largely been crying out for), on the part of the bishops to invite them.
But the fact that there are so many Catholics out there who would rather scold and judge us, not even for our failures, but for whether and how we talk about the mere fact of being gay, is a long-standing bitterness to me. I suppose it makes sense that the devoutly religious should be among those who accuse, rather than those who help to shoulder the cross. "Shut up and carry your cross like the others," a constant refrain of these writers and their commenters, is the language of the soldiers, not of St Veronica or the Mother of Sorrows; and it rightly provokes disgust and indignance in those who encounter it, and has scandalized some to the point of heresy or apostasy.
O Lord, deliver me from the man of excellent intention and impure
heart: for the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked.
Sanballat the Horonite and Tobiah the Ammonite and Geshem
the Arabian: were doubtless men of public spirit and zeal.
Preserve me from the enemy who has something to gain:
and from the friend who has something to lose ...
-- T. S. Eliot, Choruses from "The Rock," V.1-3
But my own self-righteous craving for not only vindication but revenge -- that our, and my, opponents should be not only corrected (which need not be a wholly arrogant desire, though it is usually mixed with arrogance), but embarrassed in the process (which is always an evil desire) -- is certainly no better. Stewing over the faults of others, real or imagined, is wrong; it's what moral theologians call morose delectation, a common flaw of religious people like me, and of many people with an idealistic streak like mine. It's a great way to nurture hatred, sullenness, nasty-mindedness, and self-conceit -- including, interestingly, the decision that we are martyrs. For of course, the mark of a martyr is that he suffers for God, in Himself and in the martyr's fellow-man, and bears these sufferings out of love. But it is perfectly possible to parody the sufferings of the martyr for the sake of our own diabolical ego. Indeed, that sort of spiritual corruption is one of the greatest dangers of the spiritual life, partly because it can be difficult to detect and, correspondingly, difficult to cure.
Thank God for the bottomless wells of grace -- that is, of His Being, of the divine life -- that He shares with us. For that is really and truly the only remedy; no amount of self-examination can assure any improvement, however much it helps.
Trying to find some right, loving way of responding, even if that response were only keeping silence, drew my mind to the whole economy of the Cross on which the Kingdom of Heaven (that is, the Church) operates. In his short book He Came Down from Heaven,* Charles Williams points out the striking contrast between the proclamation of St John the Baptist and the gospel of Christ proper:
What, apart from the expectation of the Redeemer, was the gospel of the Precursor? It was something like complete equality and temporal justice, regarded as the duty of those who expect the Kingdom. What has happened to that duty in the gospel of the Kingdom?
Titian, St John the Baptist in the Desert, ca. 1542
The new gospel does not care much about it. All John's doctrine is less than the least in the Kingdom. It cannot be bothered with telling people not to defraud and not to be violent and to share their superfluities. It tosses all that sort of thing on one side.
... What then of all the great tradition, the freeing of slaves at the Exodus, the determination of the prophets, the long effort against the monstrous impiety of Cain? The answer is obvious; all that is assumed as a mere preliminary. The rich ... are practically incapable of salvation, at which all the Apostles are exceedingly astonished. Their astonishment is exceedingly funny to our vicariously generous minds. But if riches are not supposed to be confined to money, the astonishment becomes more general.
The long tradition of Christianity as the unofficial but real civil religion of Western society has muddied this a great deal. When the same institution that was premised upon transcending the law must also make itself responsible for first instructing people in the law, and must accordingly develop an intricate body of knowledge and technique for doing so, to say nothing of the rules it has to develop to govern its own worldwide operations -- well, keeping the natural and the supernatural distinct from, yet in contact with, each other is fantastically difficult; as difficult as understanding the simultaneous distinction and union of the human and the divine in Christ. Apollinaris, Nestorius, and the rest didn't fall into heresy out of mere inattentive stupidity. It is horribly easy to suppose that a properly Christian society, or a properly Christian individual, substitutes explicit and pushy religiosity for all other cultural or personal substance, or that the "moral values" of the faith are the thing for which it's chiefly important (as though non-Christians didn't have moral values!).**
An age like our own, in which Christianity has largely but not entirely ceased to be the civil religion, and in which, at the same time, the actual moral standards of society have shifted significantly, is practically begging for believers to confuse natural morality and supernatural grace. But they are as different as they always have been. Natural morality operates on the economy of law, of wrong and right in action and intent; and we cannot do without it, as we cannot do without food. But we can no more treat law as grace than we can treat the Blessed Sacrament as ordinary bread.
The economy of law knows justice as its highest virtue, and, when wronged, seeks only recovery and redress; many versions of "forgiveness," like the kind that seeks to forgive because it relieves the stressful distraction of resentment, belong to this economy rather than the other -- i.e., trying to use the golden paving stones of the Heavenly Jerusalem to pay for anti-anxiety meds.
But that is not the economy of the Cross. Its operations are the operations of the Holy Ghost, who cannot be detected, still less caught, by human means. It isn't only that you can't buy grace with money or good looks; you equally can't buy it with intelligence or good character. Truthfulness, patience, kindness, and yes, chastity may all be animated by grace; none of them can earn it.
And that economy, of grace from without, and, with it, of forgiveness and good will towards all others, as universal as that which God showers upon us, is step one of the Christian faith. We don't get to make exceptions based on how horrible somebody was to us. Whether their behavior was, or is, really and truly worse than ours doesn't enter into it; that is a return to the economy of law, of relative goodness and debts owed and just deserts. The first movement of grace is to cancel, not simply our own debts, but debts; currency is made meaningless for the Christian, save insofar as its beauty can furnish decoration to lay beneath our feet. To insist on My Rights and My Wrongs is, simply and to that extent, to excuse oneself from the economy of the Cross. Everything is gift, and so, unrepayable.
What then of our injuries? Well, admittedly, the wind bloweth where it listeth, and we do not all receive the same graces or receive them on the same schedule. We shouldn't presume on our strength, and there are times when we may and must withdraw ourselves from being injured further. But, to return to Charles Williams:
The new way of pardon is to be different from the old, for the evil is still to be known. It is known, in what follows, by the Thing that came down from heaven. ... It remains still exclusive and inclusive; it excludes all consent to the knowledge of evil, but it includes the whole knowledge of evil without its own consent. It is 'made sin,' in St Paul's phrase.
... Men had determined to know good as evil; there could be but one perfect remedy for that -- to know the evil of the past itself as good, and to be free from the necessity of the knowledge of evil in the future; to find right knowledge and perfect freedom together; to know all things as occasions of love.
... It was not inappropriate that the condition of such a pardon should be repentance, for repentance is no more than a passionate intention to know all things after the mode of heaven, and you cannot know evil as good if you insist on knowing it as evil. Pardon, as between any two beings, is a reidentification of love ... It is all very well for the Divine Thing of heaven to require some kind of intention of good, not exactly as a condition of pardon but as a means of the existence of its perfection. Men were never meant to be as gods or to know as gods, and for men to make any such intention a part of their pardon is precisely to try to behave as gods. It is the renewal of the first and most dreadful error, the desire to know as gods ... [I]t is precisely the attempt to convert the Godhead into flesh and not the taking of the manhood into God. The intention to do differently may be passionately offered; it must never be required ... The ancient cry of 'Don't do it again' is never a part of pardon.
This is a hard saying. It is, also, hardly more than a commentary on the dictum that we must forgive our brother seventy times seven times. Only Dory and that guy from Memento could do that while also expecting of the offender that he not repeat the offense.
[Image: a devout penitent leaving the confessional]
Grace to others isn't optional. It is the stuff of the life of faith. It is Jesus in action. If we don't know how to show it, or try and can't manage, that's okay; God is not as a rule taken by surprise. We can be weak. We can be one big, gaping, aching need. But what we can't do is refuse grace to others. I admit frankly that I am, for now and probably for a long time yet, avoiding the unnamed authors from my opening paragraph; I have not succeeded in forgiving them, and I can't do it by myself; thankfully God is not bound by my powerlessness. But to forgive, to love, and to want reconciliation -- even if the other party refuses -- is the goal we must have in every conflict. The meanwhile of that, we can offer up to God in unity with the Cross. Every economy has production and consumption; the pain and the hope are our raw material, and love is the refinery.
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, As Kingfishers Catch Fire, ll. 9-14
*Unfortunately I don't have my copy at hand as I write this, so I can't provide page references.
**The regular recitation of the Athanasian Creed, wisely enjoined upon Anglicans by the Book of Common Prayer in 1662, might -- if it had been rightly used -- have done something to prevent this, with its often dull but soundly detailed definition of the Incarnation. Dorothy Sayers' excellent essay on the subject (and on the general fiercely practical character of theology) can be found here, and in her excellent collection of essays Creed or Chaos?