Prayer over the Offerings for the Assumption

Let this oblation of our devotion ascend unto thee, O Lord: and, at the intercession of the most Blessed Virgin Mary assumed into heaven, may our hearts, enkindled with the fire of thy love, continually yearn after thee; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Friday, August 18, 2017

The Omen of Charlottesville

Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world;
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight …

—William Butler Yeats, The Second Coming

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First things first: for Heather Heyer, killed while protesting in Charlottesville last week: Eternal rest grant unto her, O Lord; and let light perpetual shine upon her. Amen. ✠ May the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen. ✠

Now then.

It should be, but isn’t, unnecessary to argue over whether the rally in Charlottesville was white supremacist. I can certainly allow that individuals who attended it, or who sympathized with its objection to taking down a statue of Robert E. Lee, were not. And yet—when the chosen symbols of the ralliers include swastikas, Nazi salutes, and such slogans as ‘Jews will not replace us’ and ‘Blood and soil,’ it ceases to be unfair to say that the people who chose those symbols are white supremacists. If you wish to persuade me that that rally was not white supremacist, you will have to explain what isn’t openly and horrifyingly racist to adopt the symbols and catchphrases of a perpetrator of race-based genocide. And while I have no wish to paint with a broad brush, I shall be bold to say that even people who aren’t racists themselves, but who are content to keep that sort of company for the sake of their political opinions, should ask themselves a few searching questions about those opinions.

Please note the Klansman at the lower left: this is not a man you should be comfortable next to, physically or politically.

Again, it should be unnecessary to point out that racism in any form at all is totally untenable for the Christian. One of the earliest difficulties in the Church was ethnic strife between Palestinian and European Jewish Christians, and the Apostles chose to solve it by creating the office of the diaconate, which was promptly filled exclusively by members of the racial minority.1 The single most important dispute in the first century was over whether Gentiles as Gentiles were eligible to become Christians, or whether they had to be Judaized as well; St Paul, who wrote more of the New Testament than any other single author, spent half his career battling and denouncing that one idea, calling it not merely a mistake but a false gospel. The miracle of tongues at Pentecost exhibited the coïnherence of man as man, not as this race against that; and the coïnherence is displayed again in what professes to be a vision of humanity released from the limits and illusions of sin and mortality:

After this I beheld, and lo, a great multitude, which no man could number, of all nations, and kindreds, and people, and tongues, stood before the throne, and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, and palms in their hands; and cried with a loud voice, saying, Salvation to our God which sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb. And all the angels stood round about the throne, and about the elders and the four beasts, and fell before the throne on their faces, and worshipped God.2

And white supremacism is, for the Catholic, an especially silly version of heresy. Not only because white is barely an ethnicity at all.3 But because we worship a brown Middle-Eastern Jew. When God chose to take on flesh and be born of a Mother, He chose to be born a Jew. If race means anything (which, no), Caucasians are, at highest, decidedly second-fiddle.

What, then, must the Christian be prepared to do in the times we evidently live in?

1. Call racism out for what it is, without making excuses for it. As a rule of thumb: any sentence about groups who employ white supremacist or neo-Nazi symbols and ideology that begins with the words ‘Not all of them were …’, isn’t really worth finishing. Even if it’s true that not all of them were, enough of them were. And it isn’t as though most philosophical racists are going to approach you on the street and proselytize with, ‘Have you heard about how white people are intrinsically superior?’ They’re going to start with something that sounds safe and plausible; and then keep pushing the line of what’s plausible a little further, and a little further, and a little further still. It’s what’s been happening for the last decade, whether intentionally or unconsciously.

2. Look for the good in your opponents. People don’t just wake up one day and think, ‘Hmm, say, what if from now on I were just awful?’ There’s nearly always a hurt or an unmet need or a misunderstanding at the back of it. The image of God is easily defaced, but it is hard to erase it completely. There are sociopaths and monsters out there; but they are exceedingly few, and I’ve found by experiment that some of the people most of us would dismiss as obvious instances of sociopathy are nothing of the kind, and that (a lot of) patient reason and kindness can actually reach them.

Looking for the good in your opponent for compassion’s sake is, I think, the best motive. It’s certainly the reason we are given in the Gospels. But there is another and more pragmatic motive. Since most people don’t get into evil for the lulz, they generally have a reason—bad or good, personal or principled, reflective or habitual. If you don’t understand that reason, you’re fighting blind. It’s nearly always the good in an evil thing that gives it its energy, not the bad; if you can’t find and appeal to that good, it’s going to be nearly impossible to combat the evil it’s energizing, except by destroying the evildoer, and we have laws about that.

3. Be prepared to defy the government. I’d hope that every Christian would take this for granted. The Church came into existence as an illegal, underground faith, and has always had a stormy relationship with the civil powers even when she had pride of place among them. If the government pursues a racist or nationalist agenda, whether by active injustice or by mere neglect, the believer has the right and the duty not to obey commands that support that agenda.

This is easy to write, and hard to do. But there’s a reason inspiring stories get told: sometimes, they inspire.

Your chair is never softer, your study never warmer, your prospect of the evening meal never more secure than when you read about the gulag: the epic agony of the gulag. And your lecteurial love for Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn never more intense. ‘How much does the Soviet Union weigh?’ Stalin once rhetorically asked a team of interrogators who were having difficulty in breaking a suspect. He meant that no individual could withstand the concerted mass of the state. In February 1974 the Moscow Cheka served Solzhenitsyn with a summons. Instead of signing the receipt, he returned the envelope with a statement that began:
In the circumstances created by the universal and unrelieved illegality enthroned for many years in our country … I refuse to acknowledge the legality of your summons and shall not report for questioning to any agency of the state.
And, for that moment, the Soviet Union and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn weighed about the same.4

Will it come to that? I hope not. I don’t want to find out that I’m not as badass as Solzhenitsyn when there’s something depending on it. But it could come to that, and while we may fail out of weakness, we should at least know our duty, in case it ever needs doing.

Like this, but with more torture and less subtle homoeroticism.

4. Be suspicious of the media. Even if they meant well in every case, the media can’t even predict the weather. And everybody, even the well-meaning, has some sort of slant. It isn’t necessarily insincere or malicious or even secret. But every news source is going to be guided, to some extent, by what it expects or assumes to be true; and they all have a vested interesting in being attention-grabbing more than in being accurate—it’s how they get clicks and attract viewers and sell newspapers. And the more a source shares your preconceptions or affirms what you’d like to be true, the more easily it will hoodwink you, no matter what your political alignment is.

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1We know this because all seven of the first deacons have Greek names, indicating that they were of Hellenistic descent, i.e. they came from the Jewish diaspora around the Mediterranean rather than from the Holy Land, where the Jews still spoke Aramaic. For the story itself, see Acts 6.1-7.
2Apocalypse 7.9-11.
3I forget the source, but one of my friends recently reposted a very good mini-essay on why black pride is a thing but white pride isn’t. Namely, white pride is in one sense a thing, i.e., we have celebrations of Irish and German and Italian and Scottish and Swedish heritage, and so forth; because (to oversimplify) white people can trace their ancestry back thus, at least in a general way, sometimes quite specifically. Black people, by contrast, are mostly the descendants of slaves, and their family traditions were accordingly destroyed or distorted beyond all recognition; their shared experience as a minority in a mostly-white country is, for many of them, as much history as they have, and is an authentic history as far as it goes; celebrations of Ghanan and Congolese and Igbo heritage are lacking because they were taken away and destroyed, not because of some overarching blackness that supersedes those things. By contrast, white, voluntary immigrants to this country, even when they were despised by the elites, were able to maintain their cultural identity in an unbroken tradition. The (vaguely so-called) Native American peoples were able to do the same thing, which is why we still have things like Cherokee or Lakota or Hopi culture.
4Martin Amis, Koba the Dread, p. 59. (Koba was a nickname of Stalin. The Cheka was the ‘Emergency Commission’ of the USSR, i.e. a pack of bureaucratic thugs with the job of torture and judicial murder.)

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Dona Eis Requiem, Part VII

And let there be no purpose in friendship save the deepening of the spirit.
For love that seeks aught but the disclosure of its own mystery is not love but a net cast forth: and only the unprofitable is caught.

—Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet

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This link will take you to Part VI, which also includes links to Parts I-V.

Throughout Dona Eis Requiem, I’ve touched on things that LGBT people need from Christians. To conclude this series, I’d like to make some concrete, practical suggestions. I’ve gone over those things that fall under the Works of Mercy (to pray for the living and the dead, to shelter the homeless, to comfort the afflicted), and some points of courtesy (in language and demeanor). Now, with those as the preparation, I want to turn to the realization of those guidelines.

1. Balanced preaching, including preaching against homophobia. I’ve rarely, if ever, heard a homily against gay marriage that did not include a reminder that it’s wrong to hate gay people. I have also never heard a homily against gay marriage that left me with the impression that the preacher liked gay people in the slightest. Not that I was sure he didn’t; but, apparently, love and respect weren’t important enough to merit more than a reminder. To put the same problem another way: though it would be at least equally orthodox, I’ve never heard a sermon about showing love to LGBTs that included a mere reminder of the Church’s teaching on marriage.

This matters for several reasons, one of them being the risk of scandal it gives to those outside the faith: a casual reminder sounds like saving face, not conviction. But it also matters because—if I may trust my own limited experience—the sort of person who listens to and tries to heed a homily, is not often the sort of person who needs to be told that the Catholic Church doesn’t approve of same-sex marriage. They know that already. There are people who don’t know what the Real Presence is, or what infallibility is, or the difference between the Immaculate Conception and the Virgin Birth, who can tell you that the Church is against gay marriage. Preaching to the choir is not only boring and useless, it carries a danger within it: that of reinforcing and exacerbating any homophobia, active or latent, that the choir has within it. If the message they hear is consistently heavy on political opposition and not at least equally heavy on love, love that doesn’t need to be explained in order to look like love, a distorted relationship between Catholics and LGBT people is likely to result. Homilies against arrogance and prejudice are as important as homilies against fornication and heresy.

2. Teaching on virtue, celibacy, vocation, and discernment. Last week I spoke with a priest who gave me a much better perspective on celibacy and vocation (not that I’m ready to embrace it, exactly, but I’ve got a less unhealthy notion of what I would or will be embracing). He brought up a question that I don’t think I’d ever considered before, that of why Jesus was celibate. The obvious answer is that, if He had had a wife, His principal love would have had to go to her: Wilt thou love her, comfort her, honor, and keep her, forsaking all other? With this ring I thee wed, with my body I thee worship, and with all my worldly goods I thee endow. That is an exact statement of His relationship to the Church. Marriage would have meant giving Himself totally to one person; celibacy allows him to make that total gift to humanity.

Moreover, every virtue, chastity included, is a positive quality rather than an exclusion of something else; it excludes sin as something that inhibits the positive quality, not arbitrarily. Chastity has to be not only believed but preached as the integrative, coïnherent self-mastery of soul and body together. And again, while a vocation can’t be forced, it’s also not exactly a choice in the conventional sense. It’s what you were made for, and, if freedom means the power to do what comes naturally (and sin, objectively speaking, is that which interferes with our natures, whether obviously or subtly), then freedom comes from obeying and pursuing your vocation, not from the opportunity to pick between options.

In the language of the monastic fathers, all prayer, reading, meditation and all activities of the monastic life are aimed at purity of heart, an unconditional and totally humble surrender to God, a total acceptance of ourselves and of our situation as willed by him. It means the renunciation of all deluded images of ourselves … Purity of heart is then correlative to a new spiritual identity—the ‘self’ as recognized in the context of realities willed by God. … What am I? I am a word spoken by God. Can God speak a word that does not have any meaning?1

All of which is genuinely great, and it explains a lot about celibacy. What it doesn’t do—and maybe no book or homily could do it—is give us content for living as celibates. Give yourself to God is a universal command, but we live in particulars, and have to fill the time somehow. Discerning our specific vocation as celibates can be difficult, confusing, and dreary, and being given the universal command over and over is, well, only so useful. Not being the Savior, how do I give myself to humanity-in-general?

This lack of content shows through in the language used to describe the four main states of life: marriage, priesthood, consecrated life, and ‘the generous single life.’ That phrase, at least to me, is soggy with afterthought. That doesn’t mean non-consecrated lay celibacy isn’t a real vocation; but I don’t think it’s unfair either to say that the Church has given little of her energy and time to any living and life-giving theology of what that is. Because, as it stands, it sounds just as negation-centered as defining celibacy in terms of not having sex. Doubtless each one of us has his or her own peculiar mission as a celibate; but we need guidance to find it, we need to be given tools to discern the concrete. General platitudes, however true, leave us as rudderless as we were before.

3. Speak and act against the oppression of LGBT people. For the American, this will above all mean the oppression of LGBTs in other countries: Russia, India, Pakistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Nigeria, Kenya, and Tanzania all have laws against homosexuality ranging from restrictions on freedom of speech to the death penalty, and the cultures that undergird those laws frequently exhibit anti-gay violence. Speaking against that sets a good example, to those inside and outside the Church, and is consistent with the Christian teaching that all men are made in the image of God and should be treated with dignity; and, more to the point, acting against it (Rainbow Railroad is one way of doing so) saves people’s lives. It’s no small thing to help a person escape a Chechnyan concentration camp or a Ugandan prison.

Navy blue: same-sex marriage legal
Cyan: same-sex marriages performed elsewhere recognized
Sky blue: same-sex civil unions legal
Pale blue: unregistered same-sex cohabitation
Grey: no recognition of same-sex relationships
Beige: restrictions on liberty of expression about LGBT issues
Yellow: same-sex activity illegal without enforcement
Orange: same-sex activity punishable by imprisonment
Deep orange: same-sex activity punishable by life imprisonment
Brown: same-sex activity punishable by death

Hereby perceive we the love of God, because he laid down his life for us: and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren. But whoso hath this world’s good, and seeth his brother have need, and shutteth up his bowels of compassion from him, how dwelleth the love of God in him? My little children, let us not love in word, neither in tongue; but in deed and in truth.2

4. Let us work alongside you. Christians are much given to telling gay people not to define ourselves by our sexuality. Well and good; but we kinda need you to cut that out, too. Let us be teachers, priests, therapists, soldiers, youth pastors. Of course a person with psychological problems or sexual addiction wouldn’t necessarily be cut out for such roles, but psychological problems and sexual addiction don’t really have anything to do with being gay. They’re abundant among heterosexuals. Reluctance to allow LGBT people a role in ministries and leadership is based either in ignorance of the facts about us—an ignorance which, sad to say, is commonplace among Christians—or in bigotry. And neither bigotry nor ignorance is helpful to the Church, or to the person discriminating, or to the one discriminated against.

Whatever our vocations may be, we must fulfill them, and if we don’t then both we and the Church will be deprived of a good that God meant to give us: quench not the Spirit. If our attempts to pursue our vocations are thwarted by our fellow believers, the consequences can be tragic. A repressed vocation is as dangerous as a repressed passion, for both, being rooted in our natures, will find other and perverted modes of expression if their natural growth is cut. This doesn’t mean you don’t weed the garden of nature, but, as the parable of the wheat and the tares hints, weeding should not be undertaken prematurely or hastily.

To sum up the series: love us; and take care to think out how to love us in ways that we will recognize as love. God emptied Himself, taking on the likeness of a servant.

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1Thomas Merton, Contemplative Prayer, p. 46.
2I John 3.16-18.