Collect


Preface for Paschaltide

It is very meet, right, and our bounden duty, that we should at all times, and in all places, give thanks unto thee, O Lord, holy Father, almighty, everlasting God; but chiefly are we bound to praise thee for the glorious Resurrection of thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord; for he is the very Paschal Lamb, who was sacrificed for us, and hath taken away the sin of the world; who by his death hath destroyed death, and by his rising to life again hath won for us everlasting life.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Emptiness

Burn it down
Till the embers smoke on the ground
And start new
When your heart is an empty room
With walls of the deepest blue

-- Ben Gibbard, "Your Heart Is an Empty Room"

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There's a remarkable kind of quiet that small and mid-level cities have at night. Perhaps big cities have it too -- I've never been in one long enough to find out -- but I can attest, from having occasionally wandered the streets of Annapolis and Baltimore in the small hours of the night, when the sky is burnt orange by the streetlamps, that the quiet and the solitude have a curious kind of infinity to them. The normally noisy, congested, chaotic streets are emptied; everybody's asleep; the place is overtaken by a feeling of peace and slowness and melancholy that is one of the most distinctive, eerie pleasures out there.


I wonder whether celibacy, rightly integrated, might be a little like that. It has the ring of truth, to me, to suppose that it does, but I can't tell. I haven't rightly integrated celibacy, that's for sure. And I don't really know whether I ever will. With interludes of contentment, I've spent the last twelve years wishing, wishing I could quit and just ignore it all. Trying to find a pretext to give up. The loneliness gnaws at you like hunger sometimes, principle or no principle. I took the little book out of the angel's hand, and ate it up; and it was in my mouth as sweet as honey: and as soon as I had eaten it, my belly was bitter.

To a lot of people, the obvious question this raises is how a good God could ask such a thing of anyone. Personally, I can't make any use of that line of thinking. I feel that way, most of the time; and I've no wish to dismiss feelings as unimportant, my own or other people's. (Admittedly I am also not totally sure what to do with feelings most of the time, but that's my problem.) Even Aristotle, the epitome of Hellenistic rationality, said that the intellect should be the constitutional monarch of the heart, not its tyrant.

But, intellectually, I find myself unable to give the problem of loneliness any great weight. For if there is a God, and if He does know everything while we don't, and if we are moreover imperfect creatures -- then is it, on the face of things, really difficult to hypothesize that He would ask something of me that I find incomprehensible and painful? I've neither the right nor the desire to blame others for not looking at the purely intellectual part of the problem that way; but I am beholden to my own conscience and reason. To ignore them is simple dishonesty, which is even more intolerable than being alone.

This is traditionally the part where orthodox, well-meaning Catholics pipe up and say that celibacy doesn't have to mean loneliness, that sex and romance aren't everything, that marriages don't magically make you happy, yakety yakety yakety blah blah blah, and I exercise profound self-control in not strangling them even a little bit, for which I am sure I will be rewarded magnificently in heaven.*

Can you be happy without a romantic partner? Well, some people can. I've met them. But I don't know whether everybody can -- St Paul, though he didn't put it in quite those terms, didn't seem to think so -- and I don't know whether the categories of people who can be happy as celibates and people whom God calls to celibacy are necessarily the same thing.**


That ache, that hunger, it isn't just for company. It isn't even just for love. Loves do not, as a rule, substitute for one another very well; as any lonely middle school boy whose mother loves him very much could tell you. The restless, empty feeling of longing for a partner and not having one -- it's always being second, it's feeling like your body isn't for somebody, it's looking after yourself when you're sick, it's having only your own will and imagination to rely on, it's having no one to share a bottle of wine and a bad movie with. In a weird way, it's feeling like your choices don't really matter, because when you come home, whom do they actually affect? You can go out and do stuff, sure, and that stuff may well matter; and then you come home and the stuff that matters is over, and it's just you and the walls. It isn't a matter of not having intimate and supportive friends, or not having a creative outlet or a sense of purpose -- even if those things help. It's just the blank feeling that: I am not special to someone. I am only me.

And what the fuck do you do with that? It's no wonder that people get drunk and get high and screw and gamble and cut themselves -- anything to make the awareness of being alone stop. Anything, even religion, though that doesn't provide enough of a high to distract most people. Because really, God is no substitute for a husband any more than a husband is a substitute for God.

As so often, I've got no idea where I'm going with this. I keep thinking I've got a handle on what Mudblood Catholic is for, and then finding out I don't know jack about what it's for.



*After being in Purgatory for, like, all of the years.

**I'm not talking about happiness in the technical, Thomistic sense. I just mean what people normally mean when they talk about being happy. (When people talk about "true" happiness, it's a sure sign that they're giving the word a sense it never normally bears -- which may be justified or not.)

15 comments:

  1. I just wrote a comment, but then I decided I don't know enough to make it. So I'd like to ask for a fuller picture of your week-in week-out existence.

    Do you have a job — how many hours per day, how many days? Are you involved in other organizations or activities? How many hours/ days? How much time do you typically spend in the company of one or more friends?How many hours are you home alone?

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    1. Well, being an introvert, I do need a larger amount of downtime than most people; but I'm pretty busy all the same. I work about 25-30 hours a week at Starbucks (usually four or five days a week), I'm part of a writers' group, I'm in a Bible study, I run the altar guild at my parish, I help my family members and friends with their children and pets (typically at least once a week), and of course there's Mudblood Catholic and my novels and poems. How many hours I'm home alone -- not counting sleep -- anywhere from six to ten on average, I suppose.

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    2. (I.e., six to ten per day, depending largely on whether I have work that day.)

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  2. Dear Gabriel,
    I am an 18 year old Catholic and have been following your blog for some time but I have never commented before. I think you're a great writer and also, although I don't know you as a person of course, you seem to be very caring from how sensitively you write about a lot of things. I admire that a lot and don't often see it on the internet or in day to day life. I also admire your honesty in your struggles and your life as a Christian, and not sugarcoating things to please people, many of whom (including me a lot of the time) desperately want to believe that eventually, at some point for any well-meaning and "good" Christian who "tries" hard enough, celibacy (both as a single straight Christian or a gay Christian) will come easy peasy. I honestly don't know what to say about how you've written you're feeling now and I don't want to say any of those Catholic cliché things you mentioned (sorry for robbing you of another magnificent reward in heaven for not giving you an opportunity to exercise profound self-control in not strangling me) because I've already had to cringe and feel awful doing that once this week to a friend who's a (straight) but nonetheless single devout Catholic in her 50s and feels (it appears) similarly to you. My heart breaks for you both, and the many people who I am aware and unaware of in similar situations, but I have no idea myself what it must be like as I'm only a straight 18 year old with my whole life ahead of me as they say, having a (hilariously) fun time discerning my vocation. I understand about your intellectual reasoning and your emotions often being completely incongruous and going with your intellectual reasoning just isn't nearly enough comfort (or any at all perhaps) sometimes, even though it's the only thing you can honestly do, and I think you and others are very brave for continuing the struggle to live the truth in your lives (which I know all Christian struggle to do but) especially in this aspect, as your cross is so unlike so many other crosses and I honestly think one of the most difficult to bear (and get quite annoyed at people who really don't seem to get it). Don't give up is the only thing I can say really (I don't know if that comes across as hollow or cliche too, but I don't mean it to be, I'm sorry if it does though) and that you have my prayers. Also sorry I have nothing practical to offer like naturgesetz. God bless xxx

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  3. Thanks for the information about your current pattern of life. It makes it a bit easier to say something I hope may be helpful, or at least encouraging.

    Even though I'm content to live alone, I can at least understand intellectually that you want someone to come home to, a romantic partner, as you put it. And although I don't constantly feel that desire, there have been two people in particular with whom I imagined the possibility of living.

    Today I came across two items that help illustrate what I think. One was on a blog that gives advice to LGBT people. The question was from a 25 year old about how to make friends. The kernel of the answer was that you usually make friends from among those you see regularly. I'll take that one step further and say that, apart from dating sites, that's where you find romantic partners as well — although sparks may fly on first acquaintance. Which means that Starbucks, the writers' group, and the Bible study are where you could meet someone. The people there at present may not be good prospects, but people can come and go.

    Second, as I continue through the Theology of the Body at your suggestion, today I came across this: "This attitude [of devoting oneself completely to the service of the kingdom of God] presupposes abstention from marriage, exclusively 'for the kingdom of God,' and a life directed uniquely to this goal. Otherwise 'division' can secretly enter into the life of an unmarried person, who, being deprived, on the one hand of married life and, on the other hand, of a clear goal for which he should renounce marriage, could find himself faced with a certain void."

    Clearly, then, celibacy other than for the sake of the kingdom is a possibility. The immorality of extramarital sex would be one reason other than total devotion to the kingdom. Clearly, also, John Paul II is not thinking about the situation of gay men here, but I think the point is relevant. If I read our friends as Spiritual Friendship correctly, for those who have not embraced celibacy for the sake of the kingdom but who nonetheless find themselves bound to celibacy, an intimate friendship is legitimate, and for at least some, desirable. I'm quite sure this is true.

    You use the term "romantic," which raises caution flags as to what you mean by the word. But it seems to me that if you can live as "brother and brother" with someone you love, someone who provides the concern you wish for, there is nothing wrong with that.

    So it seems to me that your current loneliness is not something to which you are doomed for the rest of your life. It is a matter of your current situation, which could change.

    One final thought. Monasteries are places where men live together in chaste love and mutual concern and support. So far, there are no Ordinariate orders that I know of, but you could consider the English Benedictines — St. Anselm's Abbey in D.C., and Portsmouth Abbey in Portsmouth, R.I.

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  4. Dunno what to say except that you nailed something with this:

    "In a weird way, it's feeling like your choices don't really matter... I am not special to someone. I am only me."

    Yes, it's true that in our extremely individualistic and fragmented society, many - perhaps the majority of people now, will never have a lasting love: the growing wave of "elder orphans" and all that. But there's a difference between living with a sense of the possibility of this happening, and knowing (well at least as far as we can know) that it won't. Remove that prospect, and a huge motivating factor of looking-forward-to also collapses into what-does-it-matter-anyway.

    And some may say, "well you can have an intentional community". Well, no you can't necessarily. We are in a desert age. In the past, a monastery or something was a live possibility for many. Not so now. And intentional communities tend to fall apart with depressing regularity.

    But you are also onto something with this:

    "...a feeling of peace and slowness and melancholy that is one of the most distinctive, eerie pleasures out there".

    While we're on the theme of night and emptiness, have a look at these:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wFpeM3fxJoQ
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fgg2tpUVbXQ

    (Though the Shroud of Turin might give the Hubble Deep Field Image a bit of a contest re "most important image ever" this doesn't take away from the video in question)

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  5. Might I ask for the Aristotle reference?

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    1. Sorry to have taken so long to get back to you! The reference (which I ran across second-hand, thanks to C. S. Lewis' excellent chapter on hierarchy in his "Preface to 'Paradise Lost'") is in the "Politics," Book I, Part 5. Jowett's translation runs thus:

      "We may firstly observe in living creatures both a despotical and a constitutional rule; for the soul rules the body with a despotical rule, whereas the intellect rules the passions with a constitutional and royal rule."

      The distinction drawn here between despotic and constitutional rule, though a little alien to our minds, is (roughly) the same as that between absolute rulership and legal rulership, or between arbitrary government and systemically limited government. In short, Aristotle is saying here that the soul does and should rule the body absolutely in the same way a master ruled his slaves (according to the practice of the time, obviously), whereas the mind should rule the passions in the way a king rules his subjects, i.e. by a fatherly and lawful leadership rather than by autocracy. Moderns, especially modern Americans I think, don't always grasp the distinction very well, on account of our historical sense of self being founded on a rejection of monarchy as such, but the distinction between a king and a tyrant was one the Ancients and their Mediaeval heirs were well acquainted with. It's a little like the distinction in Tolkien between the power of the Witch-King of Angmar and the lordship of Aragorn in Gondor and Arnor: it isn't only a matter of the Witch-King being bad and Aragorn good; it's expressed in what Faramir says to another character, maybe Frodo but I forget which: "I would not have Gondor a mistress of slaves, nay, not even a kind mistress of willing slaves." The difference lies in the kind of authority, not only in its morals. The one, the despotic, is total -- say, the way we expect our computers to obey us. The other, the constitutional, is principled -- the way we expect (or at any rate require) our children to obey us.

      Sorry to rather belabor the point. But the topic is a sort of hobby of mine, intellectually.

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  6. Gabriel, this was beautifully written. As a gay married man, I do not currently share the angst you describe here...in fact, I know the exact opposite. I know how much it satisfies my soul to BE someone's, and to have that someone be mine. But for years (in my ex-gay days), I did once live with [what I thought was Divine] conviction that my lot was to keep myself from having meaningful same-sex, committed love in my life. And it was torture. Pure torture. I received all the same trite responses that you complain of here...and the thing I simply could not get past was the fact that there is no replacement for a husband. Not parents, not siblings, not good friends, not prayer, not church community, not God...none of these things was a husband. And was it not God himself who said "it is not good for man to be alone" and then created him a suitable partner to fill that particular kind of soul ache? Am I not a man? I am, in fact, a man, I concluded. It was not good for me to be alone. I needed a help-meet, a soul-mate. And I've found that he is good, and he is good for me.

    I understand that your conscience can't allow such a thing. And it hurts my heart that this means - at least for the foreseeable future - that you are left stuck in some sense, without anything to salve the wound or fill the hole. I wish I could say something, do something...ANYTHING to change that. Alas, I cannot. And so, while this may not be particularly helpful, do know that I am down in the trenches with you...hurting with you...hoping with you...walking with you. I suspect that is precisely where Christ is as well. Love to you, my friend. {{{{HUG}}}}

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    1. I wish I had replied to this before now -- thank you so much for your compassionate response. No one knows where a shoe pinches like the person who's worn it. I appreciate your respect for my conscience, and the kindness with which you combine it. Thank you.

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  7. "I'm not talking about happiness in the technical, Thomistic sense. I just mean what people normally mean when they talk about being happy. (When people talk about "true" happiness, it's a sure sign that they're giving the word a sense it never normally bears -- which may be justified or not.)"

    Then why are you so unhappy?

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    1. I don't think I understand your question. I mean, the post is written basically to explain why and how I'm (largely, and often, though not always or completely) unhappy. I wrote the footnote you cite to be sure I wasn't taken by enthusiastic Catholics to be saying something I don't mean. Can you perhaps expand on your question a little, or point me to a part that's puzzling you?

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    2. I found your "when people talk about 'true' happiness, it's a sure sign that they're giving the word a sense it never normally bears" extremely honest.

      So why are you still going after "true" happiness having, apparently, realized that that is a semantic game.

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    3. Ah, I see what you mean. Well, basically, I'd put my relationship to happiness like this:

      1. There's what people normally mean by being happy, which normally we all want -- we don't need to be trained to want it. Like anybody else, I want that.

      2. There's what Catholics (Thomists especially) are apt to call "true" happiness, which as far as I can tell means the pursuit of God through virtue, ending in the Beatific Vision. I don't think 'happiness' is a good word for this, even if we throw in the Aristotelian eudaemonist understanding and its qualifications; however, I think the thing-being-described is, objectively, worth having. For example, I like much better something Dorothy Sayers said on the subject: "We cannot be good and cannot be happy, but there are certain eternal achievements that make even happiness look like trash." *That* is the thing that I think worth aiming for, whether we call it happiness or not.

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  8. My heart breaks for your anguish, Gabriel, and marvels at the humility and courage it takes to continue on this Way of the Cross. I will pray for consolation, comfort, and--as our sisters and brothers in the black churches say--for God to make a way out of no way.

    I'd also like to offer a couple of spiritual practices for your discernment and consideration that are little recommended and often misunderstood but have proved literal Godsends for me in the depths of despair. I hope I am not being presumptuous in doing so and definitely frame them in the lovely words that close most 12 Step meetings: take what you like [if anything] and leave the rest.

    One is prayer of lament--both the many psalms in that vein (the largest category, in fact)--and honest prayer of rage and grief directed to God whose loving shoulders can carry it all and who longs to give you the authentic comfort that comes from compassionate listening to such fierce and courageous honesty. This was my lifeline when my nursing toddler daughter was killed by a dangerous driver and well fulfilled the promise of the nun who directed what was supposed to have been her weaning retreat: "I had the most profound mystical experiences of my life after I started cussing God out." (She reminded my shocked younger self that if I felt that way inside God knew it already --that pesky omniscience thing--and would much rather I pour it out in prayer than rip myself up or take it out on someone else.

    Two is confidently and contemplatively claiming Jesus as your One, your Bridegroom, your Best Friend, as well as Lord and Teacher and Savior; claiming his promise that his yoke is sweet and his burden light; and exploring the nuptial spirituality of the Song of Songs which in its most famous and orthodox expression, St. Bernard's sermons, were absolutely homoerotic in being addressed to male religious though claimed by nuns as well. This was my consolation when single and lonely and in fact a year focused on him as my Lover and taking off from dating humans healed a pattern of dysfunctional relationships rooted in clergy sexual abuse and led to a healthier (though far from perfect) mixed orientation marriage with DH. Since your conscience does not permit you to hope for the latter I believe you have all the more claim on Divine Love to strengthen and heal you with the former.

    Every blessing of Christ our humble and powerful coming King....

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