I have been house-sitting for my parents for a little less than two weeks now. (They are helping my dear Nana, who is a hoarder, turn her house into less of a death trap, especially since she now has difficulty walking.) The dog and the cat are still alive and the house has not run away, so I consider it a net success. Also I have rediscovered my love of pickles,1 which I’d somehow forgotten for something like a decade now.
They live in the suburbs, and the incredible silence and solitude here is almost eerie—but the eeriness is less than the sense of peace. The noise of Baltimore took a long time to get used to, especially at night, living on the ground floor of a street-facing building (not that there are many non-street-facing buildings in the city), but I did after a few months, and I have such bad insomnia anyway that it was less noticeable than you’d think to begin with. Now, being back at Chez Blanchard feels almost like visiting a cloister, except with wifi and a dachsund.2
It’s given me time to think. And time to feel—which, despite my morbid habit of incessant introspection, I don’t often allow myself: I’m too busy trying to analyze what I feel to sit back and let myself feel it, especially because a lot of it is pain, and I’d rather disinfect that by analyzing it to death than actually suffer. Anyway. Since realizing, a couple of months ago, that I’m going to be taking another stab at celibacy,3 I had vaguely thought that now things would be easy—not painless, but easy, or easier at least—and I was super wrong. Loneliness is just as hard, and bewildering, to deal with as it ever was. I’m not frightened like I used to be, but I am feeling pretty gloomy about it, and really don’t know what I’m going to do.
Though it’s occurred to me that my preoccupation with doing something about loneliness may be part of the problem. I dunno.
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Pope Francis’ recent declaration that Christians owe LGBT people an apology was a great relief to me, especially in the wake of Orlando and the lackluster response to it from the USCCB. Predictably enough, some of the … brethren4 at Crisis have apparently piped up about how what the Church really owes gay people an apology for is not proclaiming The Truth About Homosexuality™ loudly enough.5
The thing is, not only is that not what His Holiness said, it really doesn’t make any damn sense. It might, if the Church had not been proclaiming her views on homosexual sex with perfect clarity since day one, and with considerable vigor—passing occasionally into what looks like anger—since the Sexual Revolution. But, she has. Everybody knows what the Catholic Church thinks.
When I was a teenage atheist, raised in a liberal Anglican denomination, literally the only thing I knew about the Catholic Church’s teaching was that they were against gay sex and abortion. Couldn’t have told you about the doctrine of the Real Presence, or anything about Mary, or the social teaching of the Church, or Papal infallibility. … But I did know that Catholics taught that gay sex was immoral. … Given that only 3% of the population are even routinely inclined to engage in same-sex sexual behavior, I have heard this particular teaching expounded way, way more often than is proportionate. And unlike other sexual sins, which are treated with a kind of knowing sigh, this one gets roundly and clearly condemned in a way that makes gay people feel singled out, shamed and unwelcome. … This kind of sanctimonious asshattery is exactly what Francis suggested we need to apologize for—and until those who are guilty of it stop making excuses for their bad behavior and start actually repenting, we will continue to get the kind of hard-hearted response that we’re seeing today from many in the gay community.
—From Melinda Selmys’ The Shocking Truth About Homosexuality That You’ve Only Heard 1,000 Times Before
At what point can we bring ourselves to believe that showing kindness and courtesy to gay people is not a possible source of scandal, because if we’re being kind then we must not be conveying The Truth About Homosexuality™? At what point can we trust that our Lord had the right idea when He showed compassion and generosity first, and only then, if at all, gently enjoined repentance? When can say about the culture war, Stick a fork in it, it’s done?
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Then again, maybe I’m unfair. Years upon years of feeling excluded, demeaned, and hurt will push you that way—but it’s still bad to be unfair, still a tendency you shouldn’t deliberately give in to or justify. That way lies the same monstrosity that injured you in the first place.
The thing is, knowing that, it’s easy enough to suppose that at least part of the reason that conservative homophobes (or just plain jerks), Catholic or not, behave the way they do is because they’ve been scarred by some irrational suffering of their own. Nothing eases a stinging wound like being right. And being actually right doesn’t protect you from the consequences of the ego boost. Which is also, perhaps, why I feel so much better than them, why I feel I can look down my nose at those wounded, ignorant, nasty homophobes and dismiss them with a few clever words and a veneer of pity. Pride is addictive and foul. There’s no amount of introspection that can cure it; only Jesus, Jesus, the mercy of Jesus, the love of Jesus, the grace of Jesus.
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And now for something completely different: a man with three buttocks an excerpt from a short story I recently wrote called Grandfather Seer, which I posted in its entirety for my Patreon sponsors.
The old man woke suddenly only a few minutes after dawn. He had heard something. He might once have dismissed it as a dream, but he was canny: sixty years dwelling alone with God had taught him to distinguish dreams and fantasies from reality with great subtlety. There was calm outside the hut, except for a voice: a solitary voice, wailing, like a child’s. There was someone else in the village.
He got up, disturbing a few of the goats. His own ewe slept soundly on. Picking his way over the crowded floor, the old man pushed the door open. The rain had gone not long ago, and the red earth was now turned to brown mud, smelling faintly like lye. He listened carefully. The voice was still calling, in Oshiwambo, repeating the same words over and over: ‘Meme! Ohandi ehama! Penduka, Meme! Penduka!’
Grabbing his stick from its place by the door, the old man hurried toward the voice. It was only forty meters or so from the empty hut he had adopted. He stumbled on a sharp stone, hoisted himself up again, and continued. Reaching the hut, he banged his stick against the door.
There was a sudden yelp, and the voice stopped. The old man waited for a few long moments; then he opened the door. ‘Ino tila,’ he said soothingly into the dark. ‘Walelepo.’
Nearly all the children in the village had called the old man grandfather, but he recognized this one’s voice now. Fanuel—it was an angelic name, according to legend. He was so named because his skin was pale, paler than a European, and his hair was yellowish white. When he was born, a few of the villagers had suggested that he be abandoned as a bad omen, but the elders had overruled them and Fanuel had been kept. That was three or four years ago; the old man could not remember exactly; everything went by so quickly.
The boy asked him to wake his mother. The old man’s eyes could hardly make anything out in the gloom, except the whitish shape of the boy. But he knew already that the boy’s mother was dead.
‘Itule,’ he said. There was no purpose in trying to explain. The boy was too young. He put out a hand, repeating that they should go, and the boy took it and left the hut with him, naked and blinking in the sunshine.
They went back to the old man’s hut together. He doffed his robe and put it on the boy, using a piece of twine to hitch it properly—Fanuel’s skin was far too delicate to withstand the harsh sun they would endure as they walked. The old man himself would have to go bare-skinned, but he was very dark and did not worry about the sun. The wells outside were suspect, thanks to the black rains, but there were a few skins in the hut that, by God’s grace, were still partly full. There was a sturdy knife as well, with a leather sheath and a piece of string that served as a belt. The old man took a small bag of dried corn and filled a second bag with peanuts, found a couple of roughly hewn bowls, and placed the boy and their food on a zebra. There was no harness, but he was able to find a switch, so that the beast could at least be impelled to move as needed.
The boy asked where they were going.
‘Okokule unene,’ the old man told him.
‘Aaye Meme?’ No Mama?
He roused his ewe from her slumber, and she stared balefully at him for a moment before getting up. He hustled her and the zebra out of the hut, clucking to any of the other animals that would listen; a few more sheep followed with them, and the old man breathed a sigh of relief. They set off westward. It could not be more than a few days before they encountered the next village, and he was hoping for a road or a river before then.
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The old man and the boy walked for two weeks without seeing another living soul. Three villages went by in which all the inhabitants were rotting. He always made Fanuel stay at the edge of of the settlement with the animals while he investigated; he was able to refill the skins in the first two places, but there was nothing more to be had from them. When he came back, tired and aching, the boy would ask him, ‘Oto kongo shike?’
‘Itule,’ the old man would answer, and on they would go.
The old man tried to pray as they went. He could never get further than ‘Baba Yetu’ any more in his native Swahili; he could manage a few more phrases if he prayed in Latin or German, before the full meaning of the phrases caught up to him and tied his tongue in a knot. The boy did not pray along—he knew no Swahili, whereas the old man did not know the Our Father in Oshiwambo and could not summon the strength to translate it—but sometimes the boy sang, imitating the plainsong he had heard now and again, filling in the gaps in his memory by imagination. The result was a comical mixture of African, European, and nonsense words, but it was lovely nevertheless. The boy’s voice was pure, sweet, and trilling, like a lark’s song.
On the fifth day out, one of the three sheep that had consented to follow with them died. The old man had thought it looked sickly, and before long its wool had begun to fall off, as if it were leprous. When it dropped, he stopped them, and when he had determined that it was dead, he used the knife to take some skin from the animal and made himself a loincloth. Then they went on.
By the time they reached Etosha, the knot had descended from the tongue through the old man’s throat and into his stomach. Had the whole countryside been emptied? The sheep were starting to get hungry and thirsty—all the water and food that he and the boy could spare had been going to the zebra. What little water Etosha held was a blackish, salty sludge. But there were several aloe trees growing there, and the old man cut many leaves to sustain them, if and when the water ran out. The old man decided to turn south and follow the road toward Windhoek.
They walked. The struggling grasses gave way to naked sand. Once, far off the road, they saw the remains of a leopard, rotting beside the skeleton of what seemed to be a goat; they noticed it because of the hiss of the flies that were breeding in the meat.
One night, a week after Etosha, they stopped a little north of Otjiwarongo. The old man could see the town from where they made camp, but they did not advance to it; the boy and the beasts were exhausted. They set up a camp, and the old man found a dead baobab tree, broke some branches from it, and built them a fire. They had seen no predators since the leopard, but it did not pay to take chances. It was clear that night—a rarity in these strange weeks—and the numberless stars winked at them, white and blue in the blackness, as Fanuel slept.
The old man could not sleep. He sat and stared at the fire. It waved long orange arms toward the sky, and periodically cracked the pockets that had preserved moisture to nourish the baobab.
‘Kwa nini, Baba Kalunga?’ he murmured. Father God said nothing. A jackal howled nearby: its cry was suddenly stifled in a yelp, and there was quiet. The old man stood up and peered out westward, where the cry had come from, and saw a pale and ghostly shape advancing toward them.
‘Who are you?’ called out the old man in English. The shape said nothing, and he tried again. ‘Ongoye lye? Wer bist du?’
The shape answered him unexpectedly in Swahili: ‘Tazama, Babu Mwonaji, rangi farasi.’ Behold, Grandfather Seer, a pale horse.
The old man nodded. ‘Hazari ba jioni, Mtu Farasi.’
The shape came up to the fire. It was stark grey-white, whiter than a European, and thin, with a distended belly, and too many fingers. It was naked. It appeared to be of no sex, and if it had ever had hair, all of it had long since fallen out. The shape seated itself on the earth at the edge of the firelight, its long limbs and unblinking eyes making it look like a spider. It fixed his gaze on the boy.
‘Owa hala shike?’ the old man asked suspiciously, fingering the knife.
The shape smiled horribly, without looking away from the boy. ‘Nawe.’ I want you.
The old man shivered. He had dealt with devils before during his fasts; they rarely manifested themselves so explicitly, but it did happen at times. They were liars, but the horror was that it could be difficult to divine what they were lying about. They knew how to mix the truth with lies so as to throw an adept off the scent. The question was, this devil having said he wanted the old man, was that a lie or a treacherous truth?
‘Nawe,’ the shape repeated. It suddenly leaned forward towards the boy, and the old man darted between them. The shape laughed a guttural laugh and was still.
‘“Dry bones can harm no one”,’ it said in English in a sing-song voice. ‘“Co co rico, co co rico.”’
‘Mwongo,’ the old man hissed.
‘Ndiyo. Baba Mwongo anataka Babu Mwonaji.’ It laughed again.
‘Nenda zako, shetani.’
‘In qua potestate hæc facis,’ the shape replied in the holy language, ‘et quis tibi dedit hanc potestatem?’
The old man opened his mouth to pray, but he found himself still unable. His face crumpled. Fanuel stirred in his sleep, but did not wake. ‘Unataka nini na mimi?’
The shape put its many-fingered hands behind its head and stretched out its long legs, as if it could warm itself at the fire. ‘Kuja na kuona, babu.’
The shape smiled its horrible smile. ‘Mvulana atakuja.’ The boy will come.
‘Kamwe!’ the old man shouted. The boy started awake, crying. The old man turned and crouched beside him, gathering him up in his arms, and looked back in wrath at the pale shape—but it was gone.
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I’ve been rather worried for some time now about a banned commenter of mine6; the ban is enforced via comment approval, and I’m reluctant to change that since it makes it so much harder for people to comment, but that does also mean that I generally glance at his comments as I’m deleting them. I’m not hurt by the things he says exactly, but I’m pretty disturbed by them. His alternation between declarations of my vileness and damnation (including telling me several times that I should commit suicide), the most pornographic, sacrilegious obscenities I’ve ever seen (many of them involving our Lord), and sweetly composed entreaties to join his brand of fire-and-brimstone Catholicism (because who wouldn’t crave those enticements?), are far creepier than any one of them would be alone. I haven’t the faintest idea what I can do for or about this person. Except to pray, and ask you all to pray with me. I am very slightly concerned for my physical safety from this person—after all, it isn’t unknown for people to stalk and eventually attack strangers (though he hasn't threatened me per se)—but …
I feel like I had a much more optimistic ending for this take when I started it. Well, toodles!
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2Do monasteries have wifi? I’d assume they don’t, but on the other hand the Dominicans and Benedictines have such a long tradition of scholarship, I’d think they’d want access to virtual libraries these days. (I assume that the Jesuits do, because Jesuits. And that the Franciscans don’t, for the same reason.)
3Feel free to make your own ‘You’re going to put someone’s eye out with that thing’ joke here.
4Yes, brethren. And yes, …, but the brotherhood really is the more essential fact.
5The Truth About Homosexuality™ consists in: (1) gay sex is wrong; (2) any and every form of ‘gay identity’ (do not omit quotation marks), including any and all use of terms such as gay, is a rejection of Christ in favor of homosexuality as one’s primary identity; (3) nothing else. No copyright infringement is intended by this footnote.
6I will not give out any details about this person. I don’t want him attacked; nor do I want him to start targeting other people on my account.