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.

Monday, May 30, 2016

Five Quick Takes


Last week was a tiring one. Trinity and Corpus Christi are celebrated with great pomp at my parish (go ahead, act surprised), and I had cupcakes to bake and long shifts at work and helping a friend move and a new story I’m working on and insomnia—that last will hopefully be lessened, now that I have an AC unit in my window.

For months now I haven’t been keeping up with my prayers, except the Rosary, nor with reading Scripture, and my spiritual reading has been occasional and erratic. But I have today off, and I felt a sort of tug to open up my BCP and pray Mattins.1 It was surprisingly refreshing: still familiar, a comforting aspect in itself, but it just felt so good to be actually talking to Him, and using the words of Scripture to do it. You don’t always get consolations from prayer, of course—that’s not what it’s for. But sometimes you do, and it was nice to get one this morning. Thank You.

1The BCP is the Book of Common Prayer of the Church of England. I use the 1662 verson, with a few modifications (e.g., praying for the President instead of the Queen in the antiphons, and for the Pope instead of the Queen in the litany). Mattins, or Morning Prayer (also spelled Matins; I prefer the two Ts to distinguish it from the Roman hour of that name), is a descendant of the Catholic offices of Matins and Lauds together, as prayed in Mediæval England before the Henrician schism.

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I’ve just begun rereading Dorothy Sayers’ inimitable novel Gaudy Night. Her mastery of literature and language astonishes me. Gaudy Night is specially brilliant, and the theme that unites its two plots—one a detective mystery, the other a complicated romance, both intertwined in an Oxford women’s college—is that of the challenge of balancing the passions of the mind with the passions of the heart. In a way, it’s a novel about discernment.

‘But suppose one doesn’t quite know which one wants to put first. Suppose,’ said Harriet, falling back on words which were not her own, ‘suppose one is cursed with both a heart and a brain?’
‘You can usually tell,’ said Miss de Vine, ‘by seeing what kind of mistakes you make. I’m quite sure that one never makes fundamental mistakes about the thing one really wants to do. Fundamental mistakes arise out of lack of genuine interest. In my opinion, that is.’
‘I made a very big mistake once,’ said Harriet, ‘as I expect you know. I don’t think that arose out of lack of interest. It seemed at the time the most important thing in the world.’
‘And yet you made the mistake. Were you really giving all your mind to it, do you think? Your mind? Were you really being as cautious and exacting about it as you would be about writing a passage of fine prose?’
‘That’s rather a difficult sort of comparison. One can’t, surely, deal with emotional excitements in that detached spirit.’
‘Isn’t the writing of good prose an emotional excitement?’
‘Yes, of course it is. At least, when you get the thing dead right and know it’s dead right, there’s no excitement like it. It’s marvellous. It makes you feel like God on the Seventh Day—for a bit, anyhow.’
‘Well, that’s what I mean. You expend the trouble and you don’t make any mistakes—and then you experience the ecstasy. But if there’s any subject in which you’re content with the second-rate, then it isn’t really your subject.’
[…] ‘Did you discover that by making a fundamental mistake?’ asked Harriet, a little nervously.
‘Yes,’ said Miss de Vine. ‘I once got engaged to somebody. But I found I was always blundering—hurting his feelings, doing stupid things, making quite elementary mistakes about him. In the end I realized that I simply wasn’t taking as much trouble with him as I should have done over a disputed reading. So I decided he wasn’t my job.’ She smiled. ‘For all that, I was fonder of him than he was of me. He married an excellent woman who is devoted to him and does make him her job. I should think he was a full-time job. He is a painter and usually on the verge of bankruptcy; but he paints very well.’2

Like I said, the book’s fantastic. Go forth and read.

2Gaudy Night, pp. 199-201.

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I’ve now hit four Amazon reviews for my own novel, Death’s Dream Kingdom, and gotten some questions about the sequel. Sales are slow, of course—I hate having to promote my work, it feels like I must sound arrogant—but, for a quasi-self-published piece, it’s really not doing badly.

If you want to know what you’re getting into, I suggest reading some of the following entries on TVtropes:

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Our sacristan passed away late last year, and his house, which is attached to the parish, is slowly being emptied, cleaned, and re-painted. (I also inherited a neat leather jack from him, and a nice red silk tie.) In August, four other members of the parish and I will be moving into it as a little community: we all need a place to live, the church needs some revenue, and the house would just stand there empty otherwise. It was the church’s rectory for many years, and then it served as a convent for some teaching nuns—Mount Calvary always was a thoroughly Anglo-Catholic parish, even before it converted! Anyway, your prayers for the incipient community are welcome.

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Pandora attempts to close the box. Based on a painting by F. S. Church, 19th century.

Since I found myself more deeply accepting celibacy—that acceptance is certainly still a work in progress, but I think I’ve been dragged past a corner—I’ve been noticing a couple of interesting changes, one of which is that I seem to be taking slightly better care of myself. I’m not sure all the reasons I’ve done that so poorly for so long; part of it was the depression, certainly, but I think I also always vaguely expected to be able to pass the buck to a partner one day: he’d nag me to take care of myself and I’d do it, and vice versa. It’s funny, because there are some forms of housework I actually like doing, like sweeping, but when it comes to cleaning and organizing my own room, or working out, or anything like that, it seems to require an inordinate amount of effort. But, that’s a little less true now. I feel that that’s a good sign.

In the myth of Pandora and her box of evils, Hesiod (the poet who relates the tale) says that though all the other contents of the box, like pain, anger, drudgery, and gossip escaped, one thing was trapped inside when Pandora hastily shut the lid: hope. To this day, there’s debate over exactly what he meant by that. Was he saying that hope was trapped in the box, and so we mortals have no hope? Or that hope would be another evil, and at least we were spared that? Or did the box close on hope to preserve it from the attacks of the evils, which would have destroyed it?3 I can’t say why exactly, but I feel as if I understand this myth better than I used to. As if there’s something about celibacy that’s intimately connected to a clear understanding of hope. I’m not sure what that would be, but (ugh, no pun intended) I hope I find out.

3From what I know of Hesiod, my money’s on one of the more pessimistic readings, but I have no proof. A rather ingenious interpretation I heard of in college, and one fully in accord with ancient Greek misogyny, is that Pandora’s box represents the vagina, and hope is the evil that keeps men going back there. An even more ingenious reversal would be to connect that meaning of the myth to the maternity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, who did bring forth hope into the world.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Gay and Catholic, Part VII: Defiance

If I judge that a thing is true, I must preserve it. If I attempt to solve a problem, at least I must not by that very solution conjure away one of the terms of the problem. … There exists an obvious fact that seems utterly moral: namely, that a man is always a prey to his truths. Once he has admitted them, he cannot free himself from them. One has to pay something.
—Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus

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This piece deals with a different aspect of the theology of sexuality than the rest of this series. In the preceding posts, I’ve been dealing with the doctrinal basis for, and details of, my Side B principles (along with a little background to the discussion in general). But this piece is picking up where my last left off, which was with the question: given the apparently pointless suffering that being Side B can involve, how can God—who is supposed to be love—require it of us? How can we believe in a God who would do this to us?

I consider this a specified form of the problem of pain in general. After all, it’s loneliness and the fear of loneliness that make Side B objectionable, together with the apparent meaninglessness of that loneliness (since God could presumably have either made homosexuality innocent or spared us from enduring it). And loneliness and meaninglessness are, perhaps, two of the greatest sources of pain in all human life. So that I think we may reasonably rephrase How could God do this to us? as, How could God, who is supposed to be perfectly good, make a world full of suffering?

And it isn’t a specially gay problem, obviously. Even forgetting the rest of history, the great-grandchildren of the women and men who saw—or forged—the camps at Dachau and Treblinka and Buchenwald, the thermonuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the prisons of Lubyanka and the Gulag, the carpet-bombing of Dresden, and the Rape of Nanjing, should know something about the terrible gravity of the problem of suffering.

When I set up the extermination building at Auschwitz, I used Zyklon B, which was a crystallized prussic acid which we dropped into the death chamber from a small opening. It took from three to fifteen minutes to kill the people in the death chamber, depending upon climatic conditions. We knew when the people were dead because their screaming stopped. … We had two S.S. doctors on duty at Auschwitz to examine the incoming transports of prisoners. These would be marched by one of the doctors, who would make spot decisions as they walked by. Those who were fit to work were sent into the camp. Others were sent immediately to the extermination plants. Children of tender years were invariably exterminated since by reason of their youth they were unable to work. … Very frequently women would hide their children under the clothes but of course when we found them we would send the children in to be exterminated.1

Knowing that that happened, and that what Christians mean by God could have stopped it and didn’t, can you believe that He exists? There must be a hundred religions in the world, but the reality of suffering justifies a hundred atheisms. The man who can't see that has a cold black pit where his heart was supposed to go.

Atheism and mysticism are the only two really satisfying answers.2 I’ll explain what I mean by mysticism here a little more in a moment, but I want to emphasize this point: there can be no mere waiving of the problem. We Christians do that too often and too easily—in this country, at least, where (for all our caterwauling) we are so comfortable, both in our persons and in our religion.

Whether the horrible reality of suffering is a fatal flaw in Christianity as such, or a mystery that the human mind is simply too limited to plumb, it is not an arithmetical puzzle with an easy, uncomplicated answer. Pretending so—being a Job’s comforter, explaining to the sufferer that it is secretly his own fault; or a pedantic busybody who just recites doctrine and refuses to acknowledge, still less to care for, the needs and aches of the heart, refusing to practice compassion in any sense of the word; or a religious blatherskite3 spewing pious idiocies about everything happening for a reason and opening doors and all that obnoxious crap—is an outrage and a scandal, and deserves to have its face spat in.4 It is noteworthy that Jesus never, even once, does any of these things. Or, if we insist on taking His remark that This sickness is not unto death, but for the glory of God in the manner of the third jerk, we may at least observe that He promptly backed that up by raising someone from the dead.

Guercino, The Raising of Lazarus, 1619

When I describe mysticism as one of the two possible responses to the problem of pain, then, I am not for one second proposing to whitewash the world, à la Chesterton’s optimist. The kind of mysticism I mean is the kind which says that God is so powerful that He can take evil—real, hideous evil—and use it to make a lovelier, richer good: a good that, with our inevitably limited perspective, we cannot see from here and now; a good that makes it worth our while to have endured injustice and pain, without pretending that injustice and pain are not important or not real. I mean, there’d be no question of redeeming them if they weren’t ugly.

For the alternatives would seem to be that suffering is too trivial to be worth correcting, a profound insult to all who suffer; or, that evil is finally victorious. Suffering is an unavoidable and indisputable fact. The Christian doctrines of redemption and judgment, the doctrine that what Hoess did can be made an instrument of good, is saying that evil never gets the final word, that it will be truly and really defeated on its home turf, that it has no right to be here and will one day be expelled.

As far as I can tell, the facts are consistent with both the atheist interpretation and the mystical. As I’ve written about a little bit before, I have other grounds for finding the mystical interpretation more satisfying.

Francisco de Zurbaran, Saint John of the Cross, 1655

Yet honestly, even if it came down to which view I prefer, I’d refuse to give evil the satisfaction of triumphing in my head. (I could never decide my views based on what I like better; but I do, in fact, like this one better, and we are talking about the response of the heart here.) The same revolt against suffering that makes me sympathize with many kinds of atheism makes another part of me unwilling to be an atheist, because that would mean letting suffering win. Fuck that. Loneliness and meaninglessness and mass murder and all the rest of it are evil, they’re ugly, they’re horrible, and they are going to lose. I consider that a damn fine world to live in.

This is exactly why Jesus chose to die. I mean, also a whole bunch of other reasons, but this one too. In choosing to be crucified, He was taking on the whole depth of human suffering, drinking the cup to the last drop, because He knew—no, as a man, He believed that His Father was greater than all of that, and could transfigure it all into glory, could see to it that the corrupt reverends, the oppressive officials, and even His own dear and cowardly friends would not have the last word.

Let us run with patience the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith; who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God. … Ye are come unto Mount Sion, and unto the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to an innumerable company of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn, which are written in heaven, and to God the Judge of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect, and to Jesus the mediator of the new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling, that speaketh better things than the blood of Abel. … Now he hath promised, saying, Yet once more I shake not the earth only, but also heaven. And this word, Yet once more, signifieth the removing of those things that are shaken, as of things that are made, that those things which cannot be shaken may remain.5

So the agonies that being Side B can provoke are something that I’ll neither deny nor surrender to. To pretend it doesn’t hurt would be a lie. To let the hurting change what I believe would be a defeat that I can’t countenance. I’m sure other people operate differently; that doesn’t bother me. Every person has his or her own battle to fight. But this one is mine, and this is how I fucking fight.

From Margaret Hodges' version of Saint George and the Dragon, illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman.

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1From the deposition of Rudolf Hoess at the Nuremberg Trials, quoted by William Shirer in The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, pp. 968-969.
2Unless of course one finds the case for Side A intellectually satisfying. This would not be waiving the problem, but discovering that the problem had been only a sort of optical illusion. I don’t find Side A finally convincing, which is why the problem arises; but, on the one hand, if I did, the problem wouldn’t arise over this, while on the other, it would arise over some other example of human suffering.
3From Old Norse blaðra ‘to speak inarticulately, talk nonsense’ and Anglo-Saxon scite ‘dung’ (whence ‘shit’). Thanks, Wiktionary!
4They don’t let you do that, it turns out.
5Hebrews 12.1c-2, 22-24, 26b-27, in the King James because it sounds way more badass.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Gay and Catholic, Part VI: Making a Case for Side A

On their part, all men are bound to seek the truth, especially in what concerns God and His Church, and to embrace the truth they come to know, and to hold fast to it. This Vatican Council likewise professes its belief that it is upon the human conscience that these obligations fall and exert their binding force. The truth cannot impose itself except by virtue of its own truth, as it makes its entrance into the mind at once quietly and with power.
Dignitatis Humanæ (Declaration on Religious Freedom), Second Vatican Council, §1

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A newly baptized Malachi Selmys being held by his godmother, with his fairy godfather on the right
(hence my trip to Canada). This has nothing to do with this post, but I'm still kinda bubbling.

My series up to this point has been primarily aimed at building up a positive case for why I am a Side B gay Christian. I hinted at why I’m Side B rather than Side Y1 here; I've written more than once about why I left the ex-gay movement, so here I'll just say briefly that I’ve found both from my own experience and the testimony of others that ex-gay theory is intellectually unsatisfying, its practice is almost entirely ineffective, and its history is stained with psychological abuse. One thing I’ve written about very little is why I’m not Side A—except in my post on the clobber passages, and even there I said in so many words that those aren’t the primary reason I’m a traditionalist.

The positive case is of course more important. No one has a vocation of ‘No,’ and no one can have a theology of ‘No,’ either. Trying to pursue celibate chastity on that basis won’t work, and it’s a great recipe for hurting yourself to boot.2 But the positive case is not enough, for a few reasons, one of which is that the positive case for Side A is an attractive one.

Others, notably Matthew Vines in the popular sphere and James Brownson in the academic, have made that case more extensively than I propose to (since their work is easy to find). Now, there is variety among Side A believers, naturally. However, the argument for Side A that I find most convincing and appealing runs roughly as follows.

Thomas Cole, The Garden of Eden, 1828

God made mankind, and declared that it is not good for man to be alone: man is made for communion. There are multiple ways in which that human need is fulfilled, and God does call some people to celibacy. But for most people, the kind of communion that we find most powerful and fulfilling is being united to another person whom we love in marriage—a permanent, self-giving bond by which two people agree to share their hearts and even their bodies with one another. For gay men and lesbians, that kind of love is experienced for members of the same sex, rather than the opposite sex; and, especially since involuntarily infertile heterosexual couples have long been blessed by the Church, there is no obvious reason why homosexual couples should be excluded from enjoying the same blessing, by the Church or by her God. It is understandable that this should have been an unfamiliar idea to the authors of Scripture, for several reasons: most people are straight; categories of sexual orientation didn’t exist in the ancient world; and the brute fact is, there were cultural institutions like slavery that we unhesitatingly reject, which the Scriptures simply accept3—it doesn’t seem hard to believe that here, as there, Christian understanding has made an advance under the influence of the Holy Ghost.

Like I said, it’s an appealing case, not only emotionally but intellectually. I don’t for one moment assert that Side A Christians are dishonest, ignorant, or overwhelmed by wishful thinking. I assert that they’re incorrect, but that’s as far as I need to go and as far as I care to go. But, I do assert that they’re incorrect, and I wouldn’t feel that I’d done justice to this subject if I avoided explaining why I think so.

The first point is that, in the Catholic view—which was the universal Christian view until quite recently—marriage involves something more and other than a lifelong commitment to mutually sharing life with another person: it involves being open to life, that is, to childbearing. If God does not see fit to bestow life, that’s okay. But this can’t be excluded or altered, and it abides in the character of the sexual act. We believe that God cares not only about why we do things, but also about what things we do. If a couple can’t be open to life, even their wishing that they could be can’t change the facts; and, on Catholic premises, this means that while that couple may have a profound and, perhaps, deeply holy love for one another, that doesn’t make it the same thing as a marriage.

The Church has been teaching this, in so many words, for a long time. Support for this view is rarely, if ever, made explicit in Scripture, probably because it was taken for granted from time immemorial down to the nineteenth century.4 If you had told them that marriage existed to make people happy, they’d have laughed in your faces. And while I’m an incurable romantic by temperament, I’ve also inherited enough of my dad’s dry and cynical wit to say that the observable facts of human marriages and human romances line up better with our ancestors’ laughter than with our cult of matrimony.

Meanwhile the negative argument from Side A—that the Christian track record on things like slavery is a pretty mixed one (to put it generously), and that therefore this could be another instance of positive change in doctrine—has never been satisfying to me. That the Church has made such-and-such a mistake is a very good argument for her to repent of that mistake; it is not a good argument for anything else. It’s a good reason to analyze a belief carefully, especially if the only argument that’s being advanced in favor of that belief is that it’s traditional, but I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a traditional Christian, B, X, or Y, whose only stated reason for their views is tradition. And, speaking for myself, I’ve re-analyzed and found the belief at least as strong as it was before.

It also seems to me to fail to fully grasp the character of Christian tradition. It’s true that there have been slave-holding Christians since the beginning of the Church, and that the Church failed to oppose slavery firmly until the nineteenth century. But it’s also true that there has always been a kind of counterweight to this, in the form of Christians who have fought to improve the lives of slaves, limit the trade, and even abolish the institution: St Patrick, himself a former slave, was a major force against the trade in fifth-century Ireland, and similar criticisms can be found in the writings of Fathers like Augustine of Hippo, Gregory of Nyssa, and John Chrysostom. Or, to take a quite different example, the belief that babies who died without baptism would be sent to Limbo,5 rather than being taken into heaven, was a normal Catholic view for many centuries; but at the same time, since at least the fifth century, the Feast of the Holy Innocents presents the Church’s conviction that the pre-rational young can be not only innocents but martyrs. Or to take still another example, the Church’s dirtied hands in wars, especially religious wars: at the same time, there were always counterweights, like St Francis, who traveled personally to the Sultan in Egypt during the Fifth Crusade, not only to preach the gospel but, reportedly, to apologize for the sins and violence of Christians against Muslims.

The point is, when there is an apparent shift in the Church’s teaching, or at the least in her emphases, we generally find that the shift is from one strand of Christian thought to another that already existed. I don’t find that to be true about gay sex. There’s a variety of views in Christian history, to be sure: some harsh and some gentle, some sternly diabolical and some placidly medical. But they’re united in one thing, which is that none of them approve of it. The only context that the Church has ever recognized for righteous sexual intimacy is that of the marriage of one man to one woman, for life and open to life. There’s no counterweight.

And that makes it impossible for me personally to take any other view; at least, impossible to do so and remain a Catholic. I can’t truly convince myself that the modern view of homosexuality has been implicitly or subtly present in the Church’s teaching since the beginning. Other people may be able to believe this honestly, and I don’t begrudge them their convictions, but I just can’t.

Which leaves us with only the strongest and most tragic argument for Side A: how could God do this to us?

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1As I’ve dubbed it. For readers who are familiar with the Courage Apostolate, Harvest USA, or Regeneration Ministries, these are more or less what I mean by the phrase Side Y: not ex-gay, but generally resistant to gay identities and cultures, unlike Side B, which is more comfortable with them (though not giving them carte blanche).
2Not that pursuing celibate chastity in a positively constructed form is guaranteed to work; only that (in my opinion) pursuing it on a negative basis is virtually guaranteed to fail. Nothing is guaranteed to work—a fact which apologists for the Catholic view seem to have great difficulty accepting, and say too rarely. My hunch is that they are (perhaps unconsciously) afraid that admitting that chastity is not merely difficult but, for some people, a bitterly lonely, excruciatingly painful road to walk, constitutes a philosophical weakness in Catholicism. I don’t know whether it’s a weakness, but I’m quite sure that trying to avoid this truth is a scandal: people like me, who heard such glowing ‘reviews’ of chastity and then found out that it can mean enduring literal years of heartbreak, are apt to feel we’ve been lied to. Stephen Long has written with scathing accuracy on the casualties of this kind of moral triumphalism.
3When I say accept here, I don’t necessarily mean that the Scriptures approve of slavery. Plenty of people would argue, especially in the context of the Old Testament, that they do just that. I don’t take that view, personally; I consider it analogous to divorce, of which Jesus said that Moses permitted it because of the hardness of your hearts—or, as Msgr Ronald Knox put it in an Oxford lecture, that the Torah allowed men to divorce their wives out of fear that otherwise they might strangle them. But this can be set aside. The point is, even those Christians with a high view of the authority of the Bible are not bound in all cases to apply its teaching the same way as its original audience. I mean, in reading Philemon or I Peter or Ephesians, I’ve never heard of a Christian who felt obliged to go and buy slaves, or sell himself into slavery, or both at the same time, in order to observe the prescriptions of the text as the ancients would have.
4In saying this, I’m oversimplifying slightly. Our most distant ancestors, in the pre-Christian world, tended to accept both polygamy and divorce on grounds of barrenness, and the Church had a difficult time for a while in getting people to accept that a marriage which did not produce children was just as permanent as one which did; something along these lines seems to have been in Henry VIII’s mind. But of course, this is leaning in the opposite direction from the Side A view and its intellectual relatives.
5For those unfamiliar, the Limbo of Infants is a realm where, without being actively punished, a soul continues in its natural immortality without the special, supernatural joy of union with God that those in heaven enjoy. This would be the fate of those who died without baptism (whose souls are therefore not infused with sanctifying grace), but who also died without reaching the age of reason, at which deliberate sin becomes possible. Contrary to popular belief, Limbo is still a licit belief among Catholics, but the general opinion now tends to favor the idea that God extends grace to unbaptized children who die before the age of reason, in a way known only to Himself, instead of through the normal instrument, baptism.