Introit for the Third Sunday in Lent

Mine eyes are ever looking unto the Lord, for he shall pluck my feet out of the net: look thou upon me, and have mercy upon me, for I am desolate and in misery.
Unto thee, O Lord, do I lift up my soul: my God, in thee have I trusted; let me not be confounded.
Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost; as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

I, I, I

It is, of course, much easier to demand a prophet than a priest; and it is far, far easier to become a pseudo-prophet than a pseudo-priest. I will not say that almost anyone can be a priest; it would not be true for the priesthood is a vocation. But certainly almost anyone can imagine himself to be a prophet.

Charles Williams, The Forgiveness of Sins

I make no attempt to excuse the feelings which awoke in me when I heard the unhuman sound addressing my friend and my friend answering it in the unhuman language. They are, in fact, inexcusable; but if you think they are improbable at such a juncture, I must tell you plainly that you have read neither human history nor your own heart to much effect. They were feelings of resentment, horror, and jealousy. It was in my mind to shout out, ‘Leave your familiar alone, you damned magician, and attend to Me.’

—C. S. Lewis, Perelandra

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It’s hard to believe it’s only been Lent for a week. Maybe I noticed Shrovetide more keenly this year, maybe it’s because I adopted a relatively easy discipline this year,1 I don’t know. My mind has certainly been elsewhere—one of my favorite things about a fixed liturgy is that, for somebody like me who has a short attention span and a ‘rich inner life,’ it’s much easier to pick up the thread of devotion if the thread is still there when I suddenly realize I haven’t been attending for the last ten minutes.

Unfortunately, the elsewhere has been me: my sinfulness, my needs, my hurt. One has to attend to those things; part of loving your neighbor as yourself is appropriate self-love, i.e. self-love rather than self-indulgence, loving yourself because you are a self made in God’s image, impartially. Save, perhaps, that as the steward of yourself, you have the liberty of sacrificing pleasures and other goods on your own behalf, whereas sacrificing other people’s goods is against ‘the courtesy of Deep Heaven.’2 But mine has not, I think, been a wholesome self-love. (I think a lot of people assume it must be because I’m nice to people, but sadly, terrestrial good manners are pretty compatible with a reserved yet raging egotism.)

My friend Joey and I seem, as a rule, to wander in similar deserts, and we had this exchange earlier via text:

J: I just want to be right with God, but now it seems like the only way to do that is going to be hurting David, and I’m not ready to do that either.
G: What do you feel/think being right with God would consist in?
J: […] I think being right with God would consist in at least attempting not to sin […] Becauuuusssse I know He still loves me but how can I possibly be a man of any integrity when I don’t even make a pretense of following my own principles?
G: Well, you have the integrity of refusing to make a pretense. That is not something; that’s everything—“without are the dogs and sorcerers and idolators and whoever loves and practices a lie.” […]
J: Maybe. I just feel so much on the Wrong Side Of Things. Sort of shut out. … I’ve always thought of myself as the kind of person who wouldn’t make this sort of compromise. So maybe what’s bothering me is that that self image is not accurate.
G: That can be a terribly painful and humbling experience.
J: Yeah. I mean that’s not a bad thing to happen of course
G: […] The schism between who you want to be and who you perceive yourself to be.
J: Hm. Yeah. When I broke up with Adam, I kind of made it about Doing The Right Thing. But it was also, or maybe even mostly, about preserving my self image.

‘You must learn,’ St Teresa of Ávila said, ‘to bear serenely for God’s sake the trial of being displeasing to yourself.’

I’m cautiously hopeful that God is using my straying to break the idol of dignity in me. Hopeful, because pride attacks us on our strong points rather than our weak ones, which is why self-righteous virtue is among the most hideous and nigh-incurable sins. Cautious, because it is so, so easy to use that line of thinking as a justification for sin.

Pride is certainly my most pervasive and characteristic vice, more even than fornication or self-pity. People don’t always notice it, because my pride is of the highly ethical sort that motivated the Pharisees. It’s pride in justice, obedience, insight, even in generosity and gentleness. Sometimes I act on those virtues for God. But often enough, I act on them for my self-image, the great golden idol in the center of my soul, which may be pleasanter to be around than some idols but is not on that account any less the craftsmanship of hell.

Ideally, I suppose, I’d be pursuing God in the midst of weakness. Acknowledging my failures and flaws, but getting up and beginning again. But I’m so tired. It isn’t so much that it’s embarrassing to go to Confession over and over (I don’t think); but it seems like a slur against my own intelligence to profess a firm purpose of amendment when I don’t, at a heart level, believe that that amendment is possible to me. In brief, I don’t know how I’m supposed to mean to do something I don’t think I’m able to do. I delight in the law of God after the inward man: but I see another law at work in my members—except personally I don’t even delight in the law of God in the inward man. Don’t want to. Don’t know how to.

And when I say it isn’t possible to me, I don’t mean that it isn’t possible to God. He can give me whatever grace He pleases at any moment. But He doesn’t seem to be giving me the grace of chastity, or of the desire for chastity, even. Maybe that’s my fault; or maybe it would strengthen the interior idol; I don’t know.

The most I can do is (so to speak) keep repeating the Creed. I can’t white-knuckle my way through my whole life, but I can white-knuckle my way through that. And most of the time, I don’t even have to white-knuckle it. If I stay here and wait, I don’t know what He’ll do, but He will do something.

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1I’m reading through the Gospel of Luke, according to this forty day schema. Of the four, it’s the one I know least well (John I know best, then Matthew and then Mark), so I thought it’d be wise to spend some time with it.
2A phrase borrowed from That Hideous Strength by C. S. Lewis, spoken by Elwin Ransom, a man who has been to what we call outer space and what he knows, by experience, to be full of the splendors of angels. ‘This is the courtesy of Deep Heaven: that when you mean well, He always takes you to have meant better than you knew. It will not be enough for always. He is very jealous. He will have you for no one but Himself in the end. But for tonight, it is enough.’


  1. Um, so, I kind of hesitate to suggest this, but I’m wondering if you should maybe see a therapist about relationship issues? I don’t mean “conversion therapy,” I mean talking to someone about this sort of craving for a relationship. Forget that you’re gay: if you knew a woman who couldn’t go without a boyfriend for 6 months, or a man who was really unhappy whenever he didn’t have a girlfriend, you would think, “that person has Issues.” Chastity is hard, but there’s no theological reason it should be harder for gays than for straights; and if it is in fact harder for you, the cause might be psychological/emotional rather than moral. You’re so accustomed to thinking of this issue in terms of sin, but it might be helpful to think of it in terms of pathology, at least sometimes. (I write all this as someone who had an untreated mental illness (or two) till the age of 23, and when it finally was treated I gradually realized that some things I had thought of as my essential personality and desires were really reactions to the illness. Disconcerting, but worthwhile.)

    1. Oh, the problem is most definitely psychological rather than theological. And I've been in and out of therapy (of various kinds) for the last fifteen years, and it's done me a lot of good.

      The thing is, to forget about my sexual orientation as it pertains to the problem does no good. For one thing it's impossible, but more than that, it's the fact that I want a husband rather than a wife that puts me in this bind in the first place. For if it were merely a question of wanting a wife and not yet having one, the 'yet' would be fully operative; it would be a trial—maybe a harsher one than I appreciate—but not a life sentence. There's no *future* for me wanting a husband—it's not a question of not being able to go six months without one, it's a question of facing forty or fifty or sixty more years without one.

      Some believers can accept that with equanimity: perhaps their passions are more naturally tranquil than mine, or perhaps they have a better self-discipline, or a stronger faith, or different graces. But I can't simply accept it. I do, but I can't.

  2. I have to second Derannimer here, as your answer sort of seems to miss his (her?) point by doubling-down on the "surface" terms of the double-bind, as if your dissonance is merely the accidental result of happening to be gay totally independent of everything else about your personality and that if you were straight "Well, then it would be a simple matter of finding a wife."

    But what I've learned in my own life and relationships is: ambivalence is never really what it seems. It's never a "straightforward" conflict between two simply opposing but self-sustained desires. Certainly not when the ambivalence is sustained for years at a time and comes to seem (as in your case) to constitute an essential feature of someone's whole subjectivity.

    Rather, ambivalence as a psychological state always has a meaning in itself. Indeed, very often it seems the opposing desires exist precisely to create and sustain ambivalence as the essential end, rather than existing of-themselves and ambivalence being merely the accidental result.

    So, sure, one way to look at your problem is just that you are inextricably gay and utterly conivinced that religion is true, and thus pulled back and forth between two mutually contradictory goods.

    But another way to look at it is to view that tension pattern "as a whole" from above. And from that perspective, the double-bind you claim to be in starts to look a whole lot like an ingeniously orchestrated self-sabotage designed precisely to keep you in a state of ambivalence (and thus escape any real sense of agency?)

    Not to question the sincerity of either your homosexuality or your religiosity (as a conservative gay Catholic myself)...but it sort of seems like your subconscious has precisely (and so one might suspect "deliberately", though it's hard to speak of deliberateness on the part of the unconscious) painted you into a corner here.

  3. I have a feeling that if you were straight, but all other things were equal, you'd be one of those people who is always falling in love with two people at the same time and causing all sorts of drama "unable to choose" between them (it's just that currently, you've made one of those people God...)

    But then, I'm also pretty sure that you not being straight is essential to the whole structure you've set up here. You've constructed a "no win" selfhood, and something's got to give.

    There are plenty of non-religious people in the world. Not saying they're right abstractly/objectively, but they certainly feel no great loss over their lack. More to the point, there are plenty of religious people who don't have particular dissonance surrounding moral ideas about sex.

    There are also plenty of non-romantic people in the world. People who are easily able to be celibate or stay single or stay within the bounds of moral ideas and conform unthinkingly to norms in this regard and to whom no idea of dystonia in identity ever even occurred to them. Not saying they're the most nuanced people in the world, but it's a lot of the population.

    Then there is you, who are constantly (and very publicly; talk about pride) playing out this dissonance drama surrounding sexuality. Rather than looking it at through the lens of "theory" (prediction: the theoretical frameworks you find convincing will *always* wind up concluding both sides are essential to you and leave you in the same lurch; this is how your mind clearly works)...look at it from a psychoanalytic perspective.

    Rather than letting each side of the double bind argue as if it's self-contained, consider that they might be two sides of the same coin, and think about what it might mean for your personality makes it such that this double-bind is apparently (with the evidence of many years) the "most stable vacuum state" of your personality as currently constructed. That, for all your moaning about the tension and conflict, THIS very state of ambivalence is apparently the tension-minimizing equilibrium state for your psyche. Why?

    1. I've been thinking on this, and I think I see it: I want to have orgasms and still feel like a good person.

  4. Ah. Except for lots of people, the two things are not mutually contradictory (or if they are, one trumps the other in a definitive ambivalence-settling way).

    This answer, pithy as it may be, is doing exactly what I warned you not to do: look at your desires as if they are these self-contained independent introjections that just happen to be in conflict (and your psyche just happens to be the "stage" on which that conflict plays out, like the poor villagers whose town is the site of a battle between two foreign forces).

    But here's the thing about desires: they are not self-contained or independent, because desires always arise from a Subject (you yourself, in this case). And Subjects, I've come to find, always are secretly coherent. That is to say, deep down they always have an organic unifying inner-logic that explains even seemingly contradictory desires or behavior.

    Whenever someone has (lasting) inner conflict or ambivalence, it's always because the very fact of that tension is playing some sort of inner structural role.

    Like I said, there are plenty of people who feel no qualms about their sex or love life. There are plenty of people who feel no particular attraction to conservative religion, or who feel no particular dissonance about just dismissing the parts that don't resonate with their sense of the good. There are plenty of people whose desires and attractions (to people and to God or morality, etc) are not contradictory.

    That you want so badly to "have orgasms" *in this particular way* (and insist on framing/interpreting your desire as particularly that "for a husband") AND have a conscience/superego/whatever whose voice precisely involves condemning that, that you are both a hopeless gay romantic AND someone so very attracted to both the consistent rationality and mystic beauty of a religion that "just so happens" to assert this idea of the Natural Law on matters sexual, and that in spite of your anguished protestations you feel strongly negatively about simply rejecting its authority claims unlikely to just be "a tragic coincidence."

    That's not how personalities work. Personalities are not random jumbles of traits that can sometimes be just simply incompatible. Selves always have deep inner unities that they resolve into if you trace it back far enough.

    You need to find yours.

    1. Yet, as much as Catholicism appeals to me subjectively (in addition to convincing me rationally), I didn't invent it. It would be strange if *none* of its precepts were coincidentally inconvenient to me, wouldn't it? And what do we mean by sinfulness -- whether original or the 'fomes peccati' left behind after Baptism -- except an incoherent self? Not one that cannot be healed, and not one that is incoherent in *random* ways, but certainly one that works against itself.

      As to wanting gay orgasms so particularly, well, yeah. Either having that for real or imagining that I am is the sine qua non of having one at all, for an individual of my, ahem, tastes. (Not necessarily true of any gay man, but true of many, including me.)

      I'm not totally sure I understand you, because it sort of sounds like you think I'm making this up -- which doesn't really sound like something you would say.

      I mean, to me, it now seems like a fairly simple case of wanting to feel good in two specific ways (one id-based/sexual, the other superego-based/moral). That's what I was getting at with my last comment. Of course, feeling good in that sense has very little to do with being good; it's just another natural desire that, like sex, is frequently innocent, often selfish (though not necessarily malicious), and usually stupid.

      If I've read my heart right, the ambivalence is thus revealed to be of no great importance -- really it isn't *essentially* different from being unable to choose between two flavors of ice cream.

      I do also want to be good. But that desire is still small, and, while I wish it were stronger, it doesn't greatly distress me that I regularly choose feeling good over being good. (I kind of wish it did, but it doesn't.) That, of course, is a problem in itself, but a problem entirely of my own making, and so far I don't resent God for it.

    2. And yet, I think we'd all agree that if a person's inability to choose an ice cream flavor led to them simply being so choice-paralyzed that ice cream was foregone entirely, or (more likely) always had their enjoyment of eating ice cream poisoned by regret or neurotic guilt...that this would be extremely pathological.

      I'm not a Freudian specifically, I think the Fairbairnian object relations model is better than the id/ego/superego model. But I think this little clip of Zizek answering a question help gets at what I'm talking about:

      He says, "Because what really bothered Freud was not 'sexual oppression,' like, you have certain desires, society prohibits them, you go to an analyst, he allows you to get rid of this prohibition, you can enjoy. No, Freud knew very well, that there is a certain repression or whatever inscribed into desire itself, a sabotage. If you have an authoritarian father, strong father, who tells you: 'Obey, work,' you will resist him and you will develop normally. If you have a father who tells you 'Enjoy, blah blah blah,' this will sabotage you, you will probably be impotent and so on."

      Another way a friend phrased this to me (in dealing with my own tumultuous relationship) is "Being married is a pretty big part of having an affair."

      You didn't invent Catholicism, it's true. But for whatever reason you are attracted to it specifically in that aspect of not having invented it, in its self-contained consistency and external locus of authority/magisterium that makes claims about what you should want set against other desires you seem equally loyal to.

      Like, you know there are lots of cafeteria Catholics, lots of Old Catholics, Anglo-Catholics doing their own thing, Independent Catholics, etc etc. I think it's psychologically relevant that in a world of so many choices you are attracted specifically to something that makes these moral claims whose authority you can ultimately blame on an "outside" voice.

      At the same time, I also note your general refusal to interrogate sexual orientation. I'm not saying a homosexual subjectivity is itself pathological (far from it given my own "ahem, tastes") but that seeing sexual orientation as just a "biological given" (not sure your exact theoretical stance on this actually; but your way of speaking about it *in practice* seems equivalent) is a real obfuscation of how desires work at all.

      I think I'm gay for a reason. Doesn't mean I can change it at this point in the naive sense of "reparative therapy" or any of that ex-gay garbage, but that my subjectivity does express a symbolic logic, and that if I experience a "frustration" of desire, this is not something I'm subjected to from without.

      Desires and attractions (to religious values or to this or that sexual value) are not "givens" imposed from without. You weren't just coincidentally "given" two mutually frustrating desires (one for Catholic orthodoxy, one for a husband).

      Desires arise from *within* a selfhood, they are the logical expression of a psychological structure, *especially* where they seem to be in conflict.

      I don't think sin means incoherence; it can mean dysfunction, defensive delusions, or instability, but that's different from a lack of logical consistency (causality is maintained in the universe, even/especially within Subjects!) Dysfunction, defensive delusion, etc...always have their own *extremely* consistent inner logic, as I believe Chesterton pointed out about the mad man.

    3. A certain victimary mindset on the Left, of course, makes it very hard to discuss any of this. We get a lot of sob stories about people bullied "for being who they are," that conveniently refuse to interrogate the fact that apparently "Who they are" also involves this masochistic desire to be accepted by precisely the people who don't like them (and, indeed, whom their "authentic selves" seem transgressively designed to provoke/offend/irritate etc).

      I was something of a weirdo in gradeschool, but the difference was...I never expected anyone to accept me. If I wanted to be accepted, I would have conformed! That's just obvious.

      People who want to be given all the affirmation that naturally accrues to normalcy IN the very mode of defying and transgressing the norms...are setting themselves up for a victimary drama.

      The effeminate gay boy who desperately wants to be not teased etc...knows well enough what traits win acceptance. By which I mean to say, he could easily ape heteronormative masculinity if that REALLY was the goal (indeed, many sensitive gay boys are extremely keen observers and could probably describe the requirements better than anyone; indeed, many later do in art and acting and writing etc).

      That actually enacting that script/social mask (all it is for anyone, including the unthinkingly straight boys) is somehow equally (or even more) distressing to him (and I remember such dissonance well myself, actually; a sort of fear or embarrassment or indignation at the thought of submitting to acting "correctly") a problem that exists inside himself.

      Don't take me the wrong way; I'm not saying enforcing norms through bullying is good on the part of the tormentors (their inability to tolerate and need for scapegoats is ripe for psychoanalytic exploration too)...I'm saying that ACTING normal is pretty easy objectively, and that any difficulty in doing so, short of actual neurologically-based disorders like autism etc, is purely SUBjective.

      But then, again, we might ask why these subjects are both so obsessed with acceptance by the normies AND transgression of their norms.

      People can withstand all sorts of hatred and opprobrium if they are at peace with themselves, inside themselves. Christian martyrs went to their deaths singing psalms. If there is *existential* suffering, it results from an unbearable tension INside people's selfhood. Because they desperately want something they can't have but refuse to either give up desiring (or, if possible, to fulfill the conditions of obtaining at the expense of some other desire).

      Sorry, that's sort of a tangent that doesn't get exactly at your tumult here, but maybe it helps explicate my paradigm here more.

    4. Gotcha. I'm not familiar with Fairbairns or Zizek -- pretty much the only psycholgists whose work I'm reasonably familiar with are Freud and Jung (unless you count Aristotle), and so far as I know I'm not an orthodox member of any psychological school; I just use those terms and ideas that seem helpful, illuminating, or effective for communicative. But I do feel like I now see some important differences of detail between us.

      To begin with, while I do find Catholicism appealing, there are other belief systems that appeal to me even more, especially those which would allow me to believe something other than the Church's doctrines of hell and sex. Left to my own devices, I'd probably adhere to a syncretic version of Wicca with a hefty admixture of Catholicism, astrology, and Hinduism. I converted because the Catholic faith came to seem like the best rational explanation of the facts. So while there's desire *in* my adherence to the Church, describing my faith as a desire for Catholicism doesn't really make sense to me.

      I'm not sure I follow you about "general refusal to interrogate sexual orientation." I mean, I've shared my own speculations and my (limited) knowledge of the subject several times, and I've said that I think it's probably a mixture of biological and environmental factors, though I tend to err toward the biological. I have also said that, while I find the concept of orientation useful enough to justify, uh, using it, I readily acknowledge that it's a recent invention and that it has important shortcomings. I didn't really think about it as an inadequate way of describing desire; but I certainly always dismissed the infantile binary "no bisexuals, no fluidity" outlook, and I've always considered a *strictly* biological account of gayness untenable, if only because of the famous twin studies.

      In brief, I guess I'm not 100% sure in what way you understand me to be treating my religion and my sexuality as given-from-without, as opposed to expressions of a deeper inner dynamic. Given how I feel and think about both, they both feel pretty natural to me, which squares with the idea that they both express an inner logic of who I am. But the contrast you're drawing between how I'm viewing them and how you view them is still a little elusive to me.

    5. I think your analysis of the masochistic victim complex is very acute; I would, however, add another layer of complexity. I might agree with you that difficulty in "acting normal" (according to whatever norm) is subjective; however, I would emphasize that subjectivity here is not equivalent to illusion, still less to narcissism or whining. It might *in fact* be any of those things. Sometimes it is. But there is also a mere instinctive distaste for pretending to be something that you're not, felt more strongly by some people than others (those who feel it most strongly may or may not be abnormal themselves). The sensation of falsehood can cause acute pain, self-disgust, and loneliness; because after all, one of the things we all want most is to be loved, and you can't be loved if you aren't known, and you can't be known when you're acting fake. Being accepted for aping behaviors you have no interest in is not a very satisfying experience.

      And that touches on a more innocent reason why a weirdo might want normals to accept him. Just because you don't share someone's tastes doesn't mean you don't care what they think of you. And the more unusual your tastes, the truer I think this will tend to be, especially because indifference and neglect can be quite as hard to bear as dislike and abuse. I think we all tend to care what others think of us, however little we share with them, just because they're human and we are social animals. Or, theologically, because they are images of God and we instinctively (maybe wrongly, maybe not) recognize an authority in them.

      "People can withstand all sorts of hatred if they are at peace with themselves." Maybe, but being at peace with oneself is a divine miracle, or the work of decades, or both.