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.

Thursday, December 31, 2015

2015 Year in Revue

I decided to something fun this New Year's Eve, i.e., I'm staying home with a bottle of port and some actual time to write. I traditionally do a short happy new year video to you all, specially to my international readers, in which I embarrass myself and mangle your languages with my wild-ass guesses at pronunciation; this year I thought I'd expand it a bit into a retrospective of stuff I dig that happened this year.

For me, this chiefly means music. 2015 did modestly well here; I mean, it wasn't 2011, which even Fleet Foxes, Justin Bieber, and Nickelback between them couldn't ruin, but you don't get years like that very often. We got excellent new albums from Passion Pit, BØRNS, and Florence + the Machine.

Kindred, particularly "Lifted Up (1985)," maintained the childlike energy that characterized Manners and Gossamer, but with a slightly more house-inspired, wall-of-sound ethos that feels like Michael Angelakos has sort of filled out artistically. It would've been easy to go very conventionally pop, but he still has the lightness and the ambient motifs that grabbed my attention in the first place.

BØRNS is a newcomer, and an outstanding one. Harking back to the unabashed flamboyance and glamor of bands like Journey and Cutting Crew, but with a deeper, more substantial sound that the synth of the eighties tended to lack, Dopamine is one hell of a debut album. His lyrics could be accused, not quite unjustly, of being a bit generic, but even so they're much better written than most other generic lyrics, and frankly, he can afford it anyway: the layers of sound contained in "Electric Love," and the patient control with which it builds, put the trite pretensions of glam metal to shame. (Be warned before watching the linked music video that, if you attended Woodstock or the Summer of Love, you may think you're having an acid flashback.)

Similarly, the inimitable Florence Welch brought us How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful, a worthy follow-up album to her unforgettable, baroque fantasia, Ceremonials. She infused a wonderfully strong rock vibe into her new production, above all in the arresting single "What Kind of Man" (warning: brief boob shot), which literally makes the hair stand up on the back of my neck, it's so good. She's one of the few contemporary popular artists other than Lady Gaga who's made a bold use of religious imagery in her work, and I think that's one of the main reasons that her work exhibits such power: it taps into an element of human experience that is largely ignored by modern art (save for the occasional, usually juvenile, blasphemy), and does so in a way that evokes the grandeur and mystery of the religious impulse without cheapening it by reducing it to sex -- even if it sometimes combines the two, as in "Bedroom Hymn" -- or diminishing it to mere sentimentality.

But above all, it is impossible to let Sufjan Stevens' latest pass us by. He's almost the sole contemporary Christian musician (mewithoutYou and Psalters are the only others that spring to mind) that I actually find interesting enough to listen to, partly because he's not afraid to deal in grit, uncertainty, spiritual conflict, and his own ugly aspects and experiences -- something many Christians are, to be blunt, too cowardly for. And I think I say this every time he releases an album, but Carrie & Lowell may be his best work yet. I didn't think he would ever surpass The Age of Adz, and his stuff is so good that I didn't even care. Still less did I think that piling achievement on top of achievement would come by revisiting the sound that characterized some of his earlier albums, like Michigan and Seven Swans. But Carrie & Lowell is, words fail me, great. Elusive without being annoying, melancholy without self-indulgence, spare and haunting and magical. "Fourth of July," "Drawn to the Blood," "All of Me Wants All of You," "John My Beloved," and "No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross" are -- well, nearly half the album, but some of my favorites. Seriously, I just, no words. Go forth and buy.

There were also some new book releases this year that I warmly recommend, among them Bill Hoard and Ben Faroe's episodic Hubris Towers, a Baltimore-based homage to John Cleese's beloved Fawlty Towers series, for which I think phrases like "a madcap romp" are most appropriate. Hoard, additionally, just recently released his own first book, The Dagger and the Rose, a classically constructed fairy-tale, which I'll be reviewing next month.

And now, turning to 2016, which is fast upon us, and which many of my readers are already in. My top ten readerships come from here in the US, Great Britain, Canada, France, Ukraine, Russia, Germany, Australia, Poland, and Malaysia. Greece and Belgium have been more to the fore of late, and, for whatever reason, my Russian readership has been way up over the last month. I always like wondering what prompts people from other countries to read my blog; surely some of them are Americans or other native Anglophones overseas, but I expect that at least some do hail from the countries they're reading from. I can't help but have my curiosity piqued by guessing at what could make a gay, anarchist Catholic interesting to a Russian reader.

In any case, thank you all so much for reading my blog; I'm glad you enjoy it (assuming you do -- but if you hate Mudblood Catholic, I wish you wouldn't read it, since I can only suppose it must be rotten spending your time on it). I hope you find it uplifting and thought-provoking, and, to you all,

Happy New Year
С Новым Годом
Bonne Année
Щасливого Нового Року
Frohes Neues Jahr
Szczęśliwego Nowego Roku
Selamat Tahun Baru
Εὐτυχισμένο το Νέο Ἔτος

And don't forget to go to Mass tomorrow in honor of the Mother of God. Goodnight.

Friday, December 25, 2015

Prayers for Christmas

Some of the prayers for midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, according to the Anglican Use. (I've included the Sanctus-Benedictus, though it is part of the ordinary of the Mass, on account of the unique translation used by the Ordinariate.)

Kalenda, or Christmas Proclamation

Today the twenty-fifth day of December,
When ages beyond number had run their course from the creation of the world, when God in the beginning created heaven and earth, and formed man in his own likeness;
When century upon century had passed since the Almighty set his bow in the clouds after the Great Flood, as a sign of covenant and peace;
In the twenty-first century since Abraham, our father in faith, came out of Ur of the Chaldees;
In the thirteenth century since the People of Israel were led by Moses in the Exodus from Egypt;
Around the thousandth year since David was anointed King;
In the one hundred and ninety-fourth Olympiad;
In the year seven hundred and fifty-two since the foundation of the City of Rome;
In the forty-second year of the reign of Caesar Octavian Augustus, the whole world being at peace,
JESUS CHRIST, eternal God and Son of the eternal Father, desiring to consecrate the world by his most loving presence, was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
And when nine months had passed since his conception, was born of the Virgin Mary in Bethlehem of Judah, and was made man:
The Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ according to the flesh.

Blessing of the Creche

Almighty and everlasting God, who as on this night didst cause thine only-begotten Son to be born of the blessed and glorious ever-Virgin Mary for our salvation:
Vouchsafe, we beseech thee, so to hallow and bless this Crib, wherein are shown forth the wonders of that sacred birth; that all those who, beholding the same, shall ponder and adore the mystery of his holy incarnation, may be filled with thy heavenly benediction unto life eternal;
Through the same Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Introit for Christmas Eve

The LORD spake, and said unto me: Thou art my Son, this day have I begotten thee.
Why do the heathen so furiously rage together, and why do the people imagine a vain thing?
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.

Collect for Christmas Eve

O God, who hast caused this most holy night to shine with the brightness of the Light of life:
Grant, we beseech thee, that as we have known the revelation of his light upon earth, so may we attain unto his heavenly joys;
Who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, world without end. Amen.

Preface of Christmas

It is very meet, right, and our bounden duty, that we should at all times, and in all places, give thanks unto thee, O Lord, Holy Father, Almighty, Everlasting God:
Because thou didst give Jesus Christ, thine only Son, to be born for us; who, by the overshadowing of the Holy Spirit, was made very Man, of the substance of the Virgin Mary his mother; that we might be delivered from the bondage of sin, and receive power to become thy children.
Therefore, with Angels and Archangels and with all the company of heaven, we laud and magnify thy glorious name, evermore praising thee and saying:


Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of hosts: heaven and earth are full of thy glory. Glory be to thee, O Lord most high.
Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest.

This is the Mass my parish used last night: Tomas de Victoria's Missa O Magnum Mysterium, a lovely example of late Renaissance polyphony (we omitted the Credo, using a shorter version habitual at our parish, but did the rest of the ordinary).

And finally (though, alas! it is not part of any liturgy I know), the music and the lyrics of Sufjan Stevens' magnificent Star of Wonder.

I call you
From the comet's cradle
I found you
Trembling by yourself
When the night falls
Lightly on your right-wing shoulder
Wonderful know-it-all
Slightly where the night gets colder

Oh, conscience!
Where will you carry me?
I found you
Star of terrifying effigies
When the night falls
I carry myself to the fortress
Of your glorious cost
Oh, I may seek your fortress

When the night falls
We see the star of wonder
Wonderful night falls
We see you, we see you

I see the stars coming down there
Coming down there to the yard
I see the stars coming down there
Coming down there to my heart

Monday, December 21, 2015

Death's Dream Kingdom

Gentles all:

I have written a book! An actual book that you can buy for money!

I've excerpted it here on the blog before, and now, Death's Dream Kingdom, my first ever novel, is available on Clickworks Press and Amazon. It is about vampires, ghosts, telepathy, murder, macabre art, English Catholicism, the deep abysm of history, and of course, voluminous Victorian gowns.

So far it is only available in e-format, though that will be remedied as soon as you stop screaming. Please stop screaming, it's just lots and lots of blood. Screaming solves nothing. Please lie back.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Serious Business

I'm working on a real post, but I just can't get in the right headspace for it at the moment. So, for your viewing pleasure, I offer you some Eye-of-the-Tiberian/Onionesque Catholic headlines that I jotted down a while back, having been inspired by some exceptionally bad music at a Mass in upstate New York this past summer.

Spirit of Vatican II Cast Out of Jesuit Professor After 57-Hour Exorcism
Fr Gabriele Amorth "Remain[s] Pessimistic" About Ridding Notre Dame of Infestation

Charismatic Catholic Retreat Declared "A Mixed Success" Due to Nonstop Glossolalia

Cardinal Kasper Caught After Harrowing 140mph Chase on Autobahn
German Catholics Report "Deep Sense of Relief" on Rogue Prelate's Capture

Nancy Pelosi Voted Head of US Episcopal Church

Pious Housewife Scandalized by Literally Everything

Local Parish Builds Cry-Room for Musicians

USCCB Releases "Choose Your Own Adventure" Missal

CDF Commissions Investigation of What the Hell a "Maniple" Is
Could It Be a Tropical Fruit? Some Kind of Disease? Who Knows?

Local Parish Replaces Dour Crucifix With Balloon Version

Current Antipopes Nearly as Numerous as Protestant Churches With "United" in Name

GOP Proposes Institution of Index of Prohibited Encyclicals
Rick Santorum: "Anything With Annus in the Title Needs to Go, That's for Sure"
Bill O'Reilly: "If Necessary, We Will to Resort to Reading Them to Decide Which Ones to Ban"

Fart Disguised as Sob of Devotion

Missouri Synod Lutherans Collectively Shrug, Become Catholics
"Eh, Fuck It," Reports Rev. Matthew Harrison

Pope Francis Realizes What a Terrible Influence He Is Thanks to Local Combox Warrior

Archdiocese of Detroit to Release New Flavors of Host to Draw Attendants
"Grace of Guava," "Cherr-ity," "Pecan Possession"; Approval Pending for "Forbidden Fruit Punch"

Sunday, December 6, 2015

A Portrait of Mary

The Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception is this coming Tuesday, and with it comes the Jubilee Year of Mercy* that Pope Francis is promulgating. I haven't followed that very closely in itself; my bad habits make me an unlikely candidate for complete detachment from sin, and anyway I can't afford to visit Rome for the foreseeable future (though I really want to go back some day -- I've only been once, and I was at the height of my Romaphobic fundie phase at the time, so).

But it got me thinking about the Blessed Virgin Mary, not so much as a topic of Catholic doctrine, but as a historical person -- which, after all, is what the doctrine's about. (It's kind of arresting, when you're used to thinking of things as abstractions because you've encountered them intellectually at first, to realize suddenly that they were and are actual things, things you could bump up against if you were in the right place at the right time. Walker Percy is great at provoking this realization.) Devotion to her as the Queen of Heaven and the Mother of God has always been intuitive to me; even before I accepted Catholic beliefs about Mary, Catholic attitudes toward Mary seemed like the natural way to feel toward her, except maybe that reverence came more easily to me than affection. Still does. But I've only rarely thought about her as a living, breathing person. And when you do, you realize that she was kind of a shocking one.

Theotokos of Vladimir, ca. 1130

It's easy to say that. Christians, especially Catholics, love talking about how shocking the heroes of the faith were, usually with mouths that have clearly never said anything more shocking than "Surprise!" at a friend's party. But seriously, think this over:

First, according to St Luke's account of the Annunciation, she was betrothed to St Joseph but not yet living with him (which was normal practice at the time: about a year normally passed between legal betrothal and the marriage proper). Given the customs of the time, this would probably put her at about 13 or 14 years of age. This girl, at the age when most girls today are deciding which of the members of One Direction should dominate their Pinterest collection, responded to the appearance of an archangel -- something that terrified a large group of grown-ass men with heavy club-sticks at their disposal -- with, apparently, little more than a disconcerted expression: no screaming, no prostrations, even a clarifying (not to say challenging) question to test the spirit speaking to her. That, ladies and gentlemen, is some gorram poise.

The Virgin of the Annunciation, Fra Angelico, 1446

Next, as a girl who is now both unmarried and pregnant, which could get her at least disowned by both her parents and her fiancee, she runs off -- alone -- to the suburbs of the capital. Again: a pregnant maybe-fourteen-year-old girl runs off, presumably on foot (since taking an animal would only get her in more trouble), through a wilderness festively decked with criminals, that will probably take her more than a week to traverse. By herself. I can't stress that enough. The girl had serious guts.

After this, and after singing a fierce hymn of her own devising** with an epic guitar solo (probably), she goes back to the town, family, and fiancee that she bolted from three months ago. Also gutsy. And then, in the face of the tiny, gossipy town, she and her fiancee make it known that they are getting married.

Mary's subsequent history, so far as we know it, leaves the same impression. She receives foreign dignitaries in a carpenter's house, under the nose of Herod the Great of all people -- the same ruler who executed three of his sons, his wife, mother-in-law, and brother-in-law -- in Bethlehem, which was within spitting distance of Jerusalem. She (shortly thereafter) picks up her kid and runs with her husband to Egypt for an indefinite period. Her next recorded visit to Jerusalem, maybe ten years later, portrays her going into the Temple -- how far in exactly we aren't told, but if Jesus was "sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking questions," it may have taken place in the Court of the Israelites, which women were not allowed to enter*** -- once again to pose a challenging, and very motherly, question, this time not to an archangel but to God. I mean ... what do you even say about that?

The Flight into Egypt, Giotto, 1306

She prompts Jesus to perform His first miracle. She stands beside the gallows onto which her Son has been nailed as a convicted blasphemer and accused nationalist insurgent, watching the execution -- never mind the fact that, as an immediate family member, she could be dealt with too. Less than a couple of months later, she is found right in the middle of the same group of malcontents, prostitutes, illiterates, and scumbags who massed around Jesus in the first place, who have not only stuck together despite the very public and horrible judicial murder of their leader, but have started talking loudly about the whole affair in no uncertain terms and doing the same sort of frightfully dramatic things that alarmed the Sanhedrin in the first place.

I mean, say what you want about Catholic Mariology, but you can't deny the woman had style.

The Coronation of the Virgin, Diego Velazquez, 1636

*For those not familiar, a jubilee year is a year in which plenary indulgences are given to the faithful who 1) fulfill the normal conditions of an indulgence and 2) make a pilgrimage to four specified basilicas in Rome. An indulgence itself, as I've written a bit about before, is basically a grace obtained by the Church that lets us off from the unpleasant spiritual consequences of our sins (which is why they shorten one's stay in Purgatory, since Purgatory is basically the place where you sort through unfinished business). If you'd like a little more technical detail about jubilees, feel free to read this, and if you summon the patience to figure out what it means then feel free to tell me.

**Many New Testament scholars think that the Magnificat was composed by someone else and inserted later as "decoration" to the original story. I don't think this hypothesis at all necessary. The Blessed Virgin would presumably, like most of Nazareth, have been illiterate, living in a culture with a strong oral tradition, and one steeped in the language of the Torah, the Psalms, and the whole history of the Jewish people; both reciting and composing poetry probably came far more naturally to them than it does to us, especially since they didn't make a fetish out of being original. The amount of "stock" material in the Magnificat is high, and I see no reason to suppose that Mary could not have composed it herself, even on the fly.

***The Temple of that time consisted in: the Court of the Gentiles, which anyone could enter, and which was largely turned over to commercial purposes (this being the part of the Temple that Jesus cleansed during Holy Week); the Court of the Women, which all Jews were allowed to enter; the Court of the Israelites, in which only Jewish men were permitted, and from which one could see the next court, where most sacrifices were performed; the Court of the Priests; the Holy Place, which contained the menorah and the table of the showbread; and the Holy of Holies, which had once contained the Ark of the Covenant.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

The Facts About Islam

There's a lot of misinformation about Islam available, and a lot of it has gotten mixed into the controversy over Syrian refugees in the wake of the terrible attacks in Paris earlier this month. These attacks themselves, and the debate surrounding them, are part of the larger uncertainty and disputation over Islam and its relations with the West since September 11th, and arguably longer still, reaching back to the First Gulf War or even the Iranian hostage crisis.

It is, as always, much easier to find partisan arrangements of facts, factoids, and unfacts than it is to get at the truth -- whether we're talking about the truth about Islam generally, or about specific things that hit the news. I'd like to share some of what I've picked up in my studies (partly academic, mostly idle and incidental) of history, religion, and food.

1. Is Islam is a Religion of Peace or a Religion of Violence?

No; or, if you prefer, yes.

The first difficulty -- which Christians, especially Catholics, ought to appreciate (but often don't) -- is in establishing what we mean by Islam: are we talking about the creed or about its followers? For once the question is raised at all, it's obvious that these need not be the same at all.

There is no denying that Islam was spread by the sword from its earliest days. This is awful. That said, it must also be pointed out that these were wars of conquest, not extermination, and did not involve eliminating Jews and Christians -- which is more than can be said of the wars of Christendom, which regularly strove to eliminate not only Moslems, but also Jews and whatever Christians were believed (however correctly) to be the wrong kind. The Reconquista and unification of Spain, followed by the Inquisition and the forcible conversion or expulsion of the Jewish and Moorish populace, are an extreme example, but they are an extreme example of a phenomenon that was commonplace enough.

So am I saying that Christian sins legitimize Moslem sins? Not in the least. I'm not even saying that Christian sins revoke our right to rebuke Moslems for sinning, whether we speak as Christians ourselves or as the Western heirs of Christendom -- though there's plenty to be said for that. My only point here is that, if Christianity can make any valid claim to be a religion of peace in the face of our own history, then it is at least possible that Islam can make the same claim.

No one could claim that peace is central to Islam as many claim that peace is central to Christianity. I would point out, though, that telling other people what their religion does and doesn't consist in is a little rude, a little pompous, and a little ridiculous. If anybody is going to tell us what sort of religion Islam is, it ought to be Moslems, for much the same reasons that our source for what Catholicism is ought to be Ronald Knox or Peter Kreeft as opposed to, say, Lorraine Boettner or Norman Geisler.

2. Was Muhammad a Saintly Hero or a Cruel Lunatic?

Well, was Martin Luther King Jr. a pioneer of minority rights and pacifism, or a serial adulterer?

Muhammad is a difficult figure to evaluate, and not just because the sources about him are confusing and sometimes incompatible. He's a difficult figure to evaluate because he was complicated. This is natural; religious founders, who do such exceptional things, tend likewise to be very exceptional people, whatever our opinion of the religious traditions they found. Joseph Smith, Confucius, Martin Luther, Aleister Crowley, Pythagoras, St Paul -- it's tricky to get to the bottom of any one of them.

Muhammad was certainly not perfect, even by the standards of his own time, to say nothing of the criticisms of his behavior we would launch today (with regards to his marital rape of Aisha, for instance).* Neither, of course, was St Peter, as St Paul so tactlessly pointed out. But on Christian premises this point, when you get right down to it, really only matters to Muhammad at this point -- and, on materialist premises, can't really matter to anybody, since he is both wrong and dead. Meanwhile, if we accept the view that we are judged by God after death, he's passed that gate, and what we have to decide about his legacy is not whether he was a sinner -- he was -- but whether he was also right, and how far. Bringing in "But he was a total jerk!" isn't relevant to that inquiry even if it's true.

And, for what it's worth, it isn't true, or it isn't the whole truth. He could be cruel, utilitarian, and lascivious at times; probably no more so than the European leaders of Christendom in the Renaissance and the Reformation (on both sides), men and women whom we readily and rightly admire. Admission of flaws does not cheapen greatness; but we can cheat ourselves out of admiring and imitating the great by admitting only their flaws. As for Muhammad's greatness, he elevated the status of women and slaves from where it had been; he was generous and kind to the poor; he opposed racism; and -- this is something that Christians often fail to appreciate -- he converted an entire people from one of the cruder varieties of paganism to complete monotheism. That alone is a massive religious advance, and the Catechism goes out of its way to affirm that it is the true God whom he worshiped and proclaimed, with whatever imperfections of understanding.

3. Are Most Moslems Supportive of Terrorism or Opposed to It?

Here, there is for once a simple answer: most Moslems are opposed to terrorism, whether as a means of spreading Islam or for any other reason. This is in part because most Moslems are not crazy people. It is, also, because most victims of Moslem terrorism are fellow Moslems.

One of the chief inspirations of terrorists in general is a puritan or fundamentalist approach to religion, and one of the characteristic targets of all fundamentalists is, not those outside, but those whom they regard as fifth columnists -- traitors in the house. It's noteworthy that the Inquisition was primarily concerned with heretics, not with Jews, witches, or Orthodox Christians in Catholic territories. Likewise, the main victims of al Qaeda, the Taliban, ISIS, and the rest have been Moslems whom they consider lax or heretical, not Christians, Jews, or Westerners.** Indeed, this is one of the many reasons that so many people are fleeing the Levant -- being Moslem doesn't protect them.

It's also worth pointing out that a lot of radicalization happens, not in the Middle East or other places where Islam is a dominant cultural presence, but right here in the West. The terrorists in Paris, for instance, were French and Belgian nationals, and it's been suggested -- not implausibly -- that the attacks were aimed at terrifying the West, not into submitting to Islam, but into turning refugees away and forcing them to stay under the hand of ISIS. Or Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, who came to this country as the children of asylum seekers and were radicalized under the influence of Anwar al-Awlaki, an American native who graduated from Colorado State. Which makes them rather like Scott Roeder, who shot abortionist Dr. George Tiller through the eye while the latter was serving as an usher at his church; or Timothy McVeigh, who, scarred by his experiences in the Gulf War, murdered 168 people in the Oklahoma City bombing in an effort to make a point about American hypocrisy about Dresden, Hiroshima, Baghdad, and countless other devastated cities and populations. America is a great place to breed terrorists, apparently -- though I wonder whether bringing in a few thousand refugees who are specifically trying to get away from terrorism might not dilute that quality.

4. Are Moslems Refugees Dangerous?

No. The hypothesis that they're dangerous doesn't make sense, and the statistics about them don't back up the idea, either.

Now, to begin with, plenty of refugees from predominantly Moslem countries, such as the Syrians fleeing ISIS, aren't Moslems in the first place. Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians, Yezidis, and atheists have as much reason to get out of the Middle East as Moslems do. But equally, many Moslems have as much reason to get out as these other believers and non-believers do, for the reasons cited above. Most of them aren't crazy, and the ones that are would presumably prefer to stay in a place where crazy is the order of the day.

Turning to the statistics proper, the U.S. has admitted well over 750,00 refugees since September 11th. Of those, a whopping three have been connected to terrorist campaigns and conspiracies, which I think can be safely classified as an insignificant percentage if we're grading on a curve. For contrast, over sixty times that many American nationals have left this country to join ISIS. Or hey, just compare it to something as exotic and suspicious as cars; something like 1.3 million people are killed in car accidents every year, whether chauffered by terrorists or otherwise.

Hail, Queen of Heaven, the Ocean Star,
Guide of the wanderer here below,
Thrown on life's surge, we claim thy care,
Save us from peril and from woe.
Mother of Christ, Star of the sea,
Pray for the wanderer, pray for me.

In fine, there are few simple answers to be had, few facts about Islam that can be categorically asserted. That's life. That doesn't mean there's no truth to be had, or no way of making decisions; what it does mean is that in this situation, like all the other ones, we have to be guided by patient thought and gathering as many facts we can, not by violent political rhetoric that panders to our fear and pride.

*I'm well aware that Muhammad's marriage to Aisha, and indeed the consummation of that marriage, would not have been considered wrong or even odd at the time. I think this lessens his responsibility -- recognizing right and wrong in the particular ways one's own culture has obscured them really is hard. I don't think that it changes the nature of the act; and I also don't think that Muhammad's virtue or lack thereof says anything, one way or the other, about the legitimacy of his prophecies.

**Fun fact: al Qaeda and the Taliban have both denounced ISIS for being too crazy. (Think of your send-'em-back-to-Africa uncle ranting about how awful Hitler was.) This has also apparently prompted some in our own government to propose using al Qaeda to fight ISIS, because Americans never learn anything, ever, whether from history or from the past five minutes.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Five Quick Takes


A new liturgical year is upon us, beginning in just under a week: November 29 is the First Sunday of Advent. I always get excited about Advent, ever since I was a little kid. And 2016 is set to be an important year for the Ordinariate: we're getting the final revision of our missal this coming Sunday, and, on Candlemas, our first-ever bishop is to be consecrated! Monsignor Steenson, who has guided us thus far, will be retiring from headship, and Monsignor Steven Lopes will be ordained our bishop (and our mother church down in Houston, Our Lady of Walsingham, will accordingly become a cathedral) -- I think he will be the first, not only for the American Ordinariate, but in the whole quasi-rite.

I always get excited about churchly events, but this is specially encouraging to me. The notion of an Anglican church reunified to its Catholic root, under the mantle of Peter, is very precious to me; much of my own conversion to Catholicism came through Anglican sources, particularly C. S. Lewis and Dorothy Sayers and the pre-Catholic works of G. K. Chesterton, and I've continued to be nourished by Anglican sources since I swam the Tiber myself, above all Charles Williams and John Donne. For a while, especially at the beginning, a lot of Anglican and Episcopalian Christians were pessimistic, negative, or even hostile with respect to the idea of the Ordinariates, and it was easy to be discouraged by our smallness and (to be blunt) poverty. Seeing the progress we've made is really wonderful, and receiving the fullness of Holy Orders within our community is a lovely milestone.

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The continued popularity of Donald Trump (on any level) remains baffling and is gradually becoming kind of scary. On the plus side, if it winds up being him versus ... pretty much any of the Democratic candidates, I won't have to wrestle with my Catholic conscience versus my anarchist one in deciding whether or not to vote at all -- the USCCB states that Catholics normally have the obligation to vote (as an expression of pursuing the common good), though allowing that when all the likely candidates advocate intrinsic evils, not voting can be a valid if unusual recourse; while, as an anarchist, I'd strongly prefer not to participate in a political system I categorically reject. The ongoing cause for Dorothy Day's canonization encourages me that my anarchism, and consequent aversion to voting, is licit within the bounds of the Catholic faith, but I need to give it more thought, and anyway it's nicer not to have to raise the question. Then again, that'll be true almost regardless of who gets the nominations on either side, and if the Republican nominee isn't Trump then there won't be a self-centered, Islamophobic, misogynistic ass who wants to institute a gross violation of the rights to religious liberty and privacy in law. As far as I know.

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2013 was the nightmare year, and 2014 was the year of feeling like a fucking superhero because I survived 2013; 2015 seems to have been the year of "Eh, close enough." It doesn't even seem like it's just me: stores put out holiday stuff way too early, as tradition demands, and there was a token nod to the war on the war on on the war on Christmas in the asinine Starbucks red cups snafu; but the militant cheeriness and obnoxious commercialization of everything that can't run away fast enough seem to have been extremely muted. I've yet to see any place drenched in Yulekakke, however capitalist. It's like we're finally getting some perspective or something -- fingers crossed.

It's also been a year, not of disillusionment or exhaustion exactly, but of tiredness, spiritually. Shusaku Endo's Silence, Graham Greene's The Power and the Glory, and Flannery O'Connor's The Violent Bear It Away have been my special literary companions this year; their mysterious insight into the operations of Grace, in the most distressing and unpredictable disguises, has been comforting and strengthening to me in a strange season. I still don't know what to do with myself, as regards my relationship with God (ugh, what an obnoxious phrase, but it does the job). But it's a consolation to see people explore the ways He can work in circumstances, and with people, who seem so unpromising at first, and second, and fifth glance.

And there is a comforting simplicity in the precepts of the Church, too. Not that I follow them well, except for attending Mass on Sundays and holy days and (usually) going to Confession; that whole "Ten Commandments" business I'm kinda sketchy on, especially number six.* But having that touchstone -- though it's certainly not a substitute for devoted love -- is a nice reminder of the way back.

*Or number seven, in knockoff churches.

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I'd be specially appreciative of your prayers for my third nephew, Joseph, and his family. He's two, and has had a tough life already, and been a darling little Rooseveltine trooper: he was seven weeks early and has Down Syndrome (which gives him the most adorable smile on earth!) and Hirschsprung Disease, the latter of which I don't really understand except that it gives him a lot of GI tract problems. He had to go in for an ostomy on Monday, which I think is his third or fourth? Anyway, he's tired of being in the hospital, he's uncomfortable, his mother's tired, his father's tired -- you get the idea. So the sooner he gets better, the happier we'll all be.

Seriously, look at that face!

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I can't think of a fifth thing, so here is an adorable video of a fawn that got lost, got inside this dude's house, and doesn't know what tiled floors are.

Friday, November 6, 2015


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 26, 2015

Dirty Hands

I am full of doubts. Can I really be a Catholic author? I am such a terrible example.

What sort of Catholic author, exactly, gets caught by friends in gay bars, dressed like one of Lord Humungus' marauders? What sort of Catholic author explains his tattoo from the Purgatorio in between kisses and gropes?

There have always been bad Catholics. Famously bad Catholics, even. The twentieth century was arguably the century of the bad Catholic: Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, Andy Warhol, Anne Rice, Dan Savage. Catholicism, like its mother faith, Judaism, has an incredible staying power: however far you stray from Rome, the smell of the incense clings to you; expressed in theological language, the marks left by Baptism and Confirmation are indelible, but one doesn't need the technical terms to recognize the fact, or the experience.

Aspiring to be a bad Catholic seems well within reach for me. Can I really, though? I can't quite seem to make peace with my badness, partly because I never know how much I should. On the one hand, St Teresa said that "You must learn to bear for God's sake the trial of being displeasing to yourself"; on the other, St Paul said, "I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call in Christ Jesus."

If I weren't compelled to write it might not matter so much. It would be more seemly to shut up. But I can't. I'm a chronic loudmouth, especially when it comes to things I care about, and helping fellow LGBT people know that they can be Catholic Christians, if they want to, is something I care about so much I can't find words to do it justice. At the same time, I can't lie. I can't pretend to be better than I am: not for propriety, not to be an exemplar (a fraud is a terrible exemplar, after all), not for anything at all.

I've long taken comfort in Flannery O'Connor's introduction to Wise Blood, describing her obsessive and anti-theist prophet protagonist:
It is a novel about a Christian malgre lui, and as such, very serious, for all comic novels that are any good must be about matters of life and death. ... That belief in Christ is to some a matter of life and death has been a stumbling block for some readers who would prefer to think it a matter of no great consequence. For them, Hazel Motes' integrity lies in his trying with such vigor to get rid of the ragged figure who moves from tree to tree in the back of his mind. For the author, Hazel's integrity lies in his not being able to do so. Does one's integrity ever lie in what he is not able to do? I think that usually it does, for free will does not mean one will, but many wills conflicting in one man. Freedom cannot be conceived simply.
And, more simply, from the novel itself:
There was already a deep black wordless conviction in him that the way to avoid Jesus was to avoid sin.
He responds so readily to prayers prayed with dirty hands, doesn't He?

Catholic speakers and authors and priests talk about trying to become a saint as the most important thing, but it's not. Saintliness is the fairest and most deceitful of all idols. Pursuing God, on the other hand, is infinitely important, and has the added advantage of being impossible, whereas it's quite easy to discover that one is already saintly.

Anyway. I'm not sure where, if anywhere, I'm going with this, but it felt right to share it. Mostly because it was costly. I wanted to write something safe and sanitary today -- but that kind of thing is nearly always shit. Writing should be done in your own blood, so that you won't write anything that isn't worth it.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

A Response to Dr. Rachel Lu

I was rather refreshed to read Rachel Lu's recent critique at Catholic World Report. I don't share all her views on the subject she addresses (naturally enough, given that I'm loosely associated with the Spiritual Friendship crowd), but her balance and willingness to reflect bespeaks a thoughtful analysis,  for which I am grateful, and I'd like to make some reply to her remarks. My reply is one consisting mostly of disagreement, but I hope I have disagreed respectfully (and apologize if I haven't).

One of her chief concerns is that the Side B* crowd sound a great deal like the surrounding culture, and that our concerns seem very largely to reflect theirs. She writes:
They lobby tirelessly for better support and affirmation for the same-sex attracted. But their advocacy mirrors the mainstream secular narrative in focusing overwhelmingly on broader social attitudes that they regard as defective (because they are insufficiently supportive or accepting), while shying away from any discussion of the defects intrinsic to homosexuality. ... [Helping same-sex attracted believers] is obviously challenging in a culture that is exerting enormous pressure upon religious groups to affirm same-sex desire as normative. It's disconcerting that the Spiritual Friendship group seems remarkably oblivious to this context.
I'd like to parse this a bit. I assume that Dr. Lu's objections are not to our focus on social attitudes just as such, since any kind of culture war is about nothing if not social attitudes. I gather that she reasons that the greater threat to the Church is the hostility of the secular world, as opposed to internal problems the Church has in loving and supporting LGBT people. I agree that I at least spend a great deal more time talking about Christian homophobia and its horrible ramifications in the lives of gay Christians (and ex-Christians), than I do rebuking the gay agenda or the rainbow reich or whatever we want to call it. This is partly because of how my own priorities are arranged, but it's also about the context of my audience. I expect -- and my e-mail and combox seem to bear this out -- that Mudblood Catholic is read chiefly by fellow Christians. I'm therefore far more concerned to urge the duty of charity upon them than I am to urge the duty of repentance upon those outside the Church, because talking about other people's sins to those who aren't committing them, even in the abstract, is at best an unproductive exercise.

If I had any reason to think that I were writing something read primarily by gay-identifying non-Christians, I would no doubt write very differently; but I don't expect that most of them would happen to be interested in a blog like mine -- why should they? -- and even if they were, I've consistently found that lectures on moral theology and natural law tend to fall flat on, well, most people really. It's noteworthy that, in His own ministry, our Lord mostly urged repentance in very general terms, except when talking to religious people, whom He rebuked with great specificity and open anger.

I would also say that, no, we are definitely not oblivious to the context of opposition to Catholic sexual mores in which we find ourselves. The people who believe it are our friends, our co-workers, our relatives, often our fellow parishioners. We carry around the at times heartbreaking reason for that opposition, inside ourselves. And we have been opposed, even at times attacked, by those willing to fight the Catholic beliefs that we hold dear. However much we may resemble secular culture, however much we may even owe to it, we've been told in no uncertain terms that we are self-hating bigots and responsible for homophobic beatings, murders, and suicides. No, we may be -- I certainly am -- many things, but we are not oblivious.

I cannot believe we had a supervillainous Octopope and got rid of him.

Turning to the question of culture war and arrangement of priorities, which I touched on above, Dr. Lu writes the following:
The modern Church is under assault from a secular juggernaut that would use homosexuality as an excuse to criminalize her teachings. This is a serious threat to the spiritual health and integrity of all faithful Christians, and the orthodox are scrambling to respond appropriately. This hardly seems to register with most members of this group. ... [Do they] realize that these bishops are probably scrambling to articulate their formal position in hopes of protecting orthodox priests ... from potential civil or criminal sanction? At such a time, is it reasonable to expect that "pastoral care for sexual minorities" should be a bishop's central concern? ... Any pastoral initiative that captures the media's attention (and that of the lightly catechized) will either be or be presented as a complete repudiation of traditional sexual mores. ... Realistically, then, orthodox pastoral outreach to the same-sex attracted will have to be conducted in the deep shadow of a much larger battle for the life and freedom of the Church. ... [G]iven the urgency of the situation, we really can't mute that message for the comfort of a small number of people.
On reading this last line, I thought instantly of the text in the Catechism which says, "The number of men and women who have deep-seated homosexual tendencies is not negligible." But that is not the meat of the argument.

I am the first to agree that the conflict between the Church and the World is vast -- and perennial; it exists today, as it existed a hundred years ago, and a thousand years ago. And we have always had the assurance of the Lord Jesus to Peter, that the Church was founded upon a Rock, and that the gates of Hell would not prevail against her. In consequence, I can't possibly agree that the life and health of the Church are in any peril from any amount of secular pressure, or even outright persecution. That the Church's freedom -- in the political sense, though certainly not in the spiritual sense -- is at stake, is in my opinion possible, if a bit premature to declare; but I categorically reject the idea that the Church's political freedom is in the least important when compared with the intimacy of one single soul with God, which is what pastoring exists for. The Church existed before she was legal, and will go on living if she is illegalized again (whether openly or covertly). It is only those individual souls who will last into eternity, in Heaven or in hell: but whether there be politics, they shall fail; whether there be blogs, they shall cease; whether there be a kulturkampf, it shall vanish away. 

As to whether it's reasonable to expect pastoral care to be more important to bishops than protecting their priests from civil sanction, I think the answer ought to be a clear, resounding Yes. The Church is not in the business of maintaining her social or political status, however valuable those things may be; she is in the business of giving her children spiritual life, through the ministry of the sacraments, the preaching of the gospel, and, yes, pastoring them. And she is just as present within a jail cell as she is outside of it.

Of course, this is embarrassingly easy for me to write, since I am not personally in danger of being imprisoned for my convictions (that I know of -- though perhaps my posts on Edward Snowden have earned me a "giggles" file on some government watch list or other). Still, it is, I believe, true, and my own dubious character can't alter that.

That the Church's No is louder than her Yes may be an inevitable consequence of a culture war, but in my opinion, so much the worse the culture war. Jesus never ordered us to wage one in the first place. And her No may not be directed at the scared Catholic teenager, struggling to come to terms his feelings for his male best friend, but he's going to hear it all the same. And I speak both from my own experience and from the stories of my friends when I say that, for ninety-nine sheep out of a hundred, whether they wait around for pastoring depends largely on what they think the pastor will say and do to them, and that expectation is formed by the Church's public statements.

Returning to Dr. Lu's argument, she asserts that the adjustment in our perspective that she urges is necessary for an orthodox, adequate ministry to same-sex attracted people:
Of course we should not heap gratuitous burdens on the already-afflicted, but it's essential to be clear about the truth. Is it possible to do this without some hard feelings? ... Personal narrative has its advantages, but it can also undercut discussion insofar as it puts the narrator in a privileged class (which in some cases may mean a privileged victim class), implying that outsiders can have nothing useful to contribute ... In calling for greater solicitude, the Spiritual Friends seem to acknowledge that same-sex attraction is an enormously important, life-defining condition that demands serious attention from the Church. On the other hand, when it comes to the defective aspects of same-sex attraction, they have a tendency to minimize its significance ... protesting any attempt to refer to people as "disordered" simply because they desire disordered acts. ... In short, it seems the Spiritual Friends wish to enjoy simultaneously the solicitude due to the sick, and also the respect that is naturally paid to the (mentally and morally) healthy. This is not an unusual quandary, but it is genuinely problematic, particularly insofar as it ties the hands of those who are genuinely anxious to help.
It's perfectly true that "privileged victims" exist, and also that shutting those who aren't part of a given minority out of conversations about that minority, isn't really helpful or fair. It is, I think, equally true that victims are not simply a privileged class, and that members of a given minority know best where their own shoes pinch, and should be given, not an exclusive, but (as it were) a privileged voice in such conversations.

I will readily plead guilty to the assertion that I at least minimize and downplay the defective aspects of same-sex attraction. My reasons for this are, first, that I don't like thinking about them, since my life largely (though not overwhelmingly) consists in them: my vocation is far more restricted and confusing to me than I had hoped, I expect to be childless, and so on. Along with that, there's the fact that these disadvantages hardly need to be emphasized. But more than that, in both my personal experience and historical study, I haven't found any consistent negative aspects of homosexuality other than itself. It's common in Christian circles to assert that homosexuality is linked to depression and other psychiatric illnesses, a broad trend of moral degeneration, pedophilia, and a laundry list of other personal and societal woes; but I haven't found any reliable evidence (scientific, historical, or even anecdotal) that any of this is true. In consequence, I don't claim to know about the defective aspects of same-sex attraction of which Dr. Lu speaks, and therefore, I don't speak of them.

As far as disorder and sickness are concerned, I would note a couple of things. First, resistance to calling people, as opposed to acts or desires, disordered, does not originate with Spiritual Friendship. It originates with the Church's own documents on the pastoral care of gay people, which go out of their way to say that the person as a whole is not disordered. To call an act disordered, in the technical vocabulary of Catholic theology, means no more than to say that it is misdirected; to call a person disordered is, in the same vocabulary, meaningless, and in the vernacular, means that they are diseased and/or insane. The Church doesn't teach that, and I don't believe it.

Secondly, I take exception to the (apparent) idea that sick people do not need to be accorded respect. I don't think that respect for any person should be based on their conditions or circumstances, but on the mere fact that they are human beings, icons of the Divine Creator. One may of course have to work around someone's conditions or circumstances, but that's nothing to the purpose. (I would, too, say that what I tend to look for, and what I think I read in the authors of Spiritual Friendship, is that care given rather to the injured than to the sick; but perhaps that is only a quibble.) Accordingly, I don't see how asking for respect and care in any way ties the hands of those who wish to help us.

Photo selected from Orthodox-Reformed Bridge.

There is one passage of Dr. Lu's piece that I don't merely disagree with, but seriously object to.
[Some people] view the Spiritual Friends less as a victim class, and more as the fortunate and blessed ones who successfully avoided the more egregious wounds to which the same-sex attracted are vulnerable. ... Noting this see-no-evil approach, I have occasionally wondered whether there might be a strain of "sexual anorexia" in the Spiritual Friendship school, enabling them to enjoy the sense of power that they get from proximity to temptations to which they have not actually succumbed.
This, I find disgusting, less for its ugly speculation on our private sexual qualities than for its ugly speculation on our private spiritual qualities. I've only rarely had to deal with a confessor or a director who was so ready to intrude on the recesses of my soul. That said, I can assert that I am wholly free of this particular fault, since (unlike most of Side B) I'm too slutty to be considered even within spitting distance of not-succumbing to temptation.

Returning to the much pleasanter aspect of mere disagreement, she (nearly) concludes her piece in this way:
Whether or not this is so, it leads us naturally to an important question, which only the Spiritual Friends can answer for themselves: do they genuinely wish to be well? The question is admittedly presumptuous, and may even seem a bit obtuse, but their extensive narrative invites it and of course we already know that attachment to defect is part of our fallen condition. We should properly admire those who are willing to labor under burdens that God has not yet seen fit to remove from them. It's quite another thing, however, to be attached to those burdens ...
A different thing indeed! As great, I am tempted to say, as the difference between duty and joy, justice and love, sober obedience and glorious abandon.
A thorn was given me in the flesh ... Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.
I am no St. Paul, but I try to take my cue from him in this -- and from the Lord Jesus, who did not heal His sacred wounds in the Resurrection, but preserved and glorified them. I've no doubt that I have a great deal of mere laxity and self-conceit in my attitude toward my sexuality, but, having tried shame for a couple decades, I've found that it doesn't work as a tool to bring me closer to God. As far as wishing to be well -- if wellness is understood as whole union of myself with God, then yes. If it's understood in any other sense, I don't believe that it's truly worth my time.

Caravaggio, The Incredulity of Saint Thomas, 1602.

*For those not already familiar, Side B is a sort of nickname for those of us who regard ourselves as gay, bisexual, trans, or otherwise queer, but affirm the traditional Christian doctrine that sex is rightly reserved to monogamous, heterosexual marriage. The nickname's origins need not detain us for the moment.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

The Economy of the Cross

August and September's extended conflict between certain authors who shall remain nameless and the Side B/Spiritual Friendship community left me feeling extremely hurt, angry, and bewildered. The refusal to heed explanation and argument from people who live directly in the tension between the queer world and the Church, and are thus more or less forced to know what we are talking about, was the source of the bewilderment; the hints at heresy despite our unanimous orthodoxy, and the apparently total and callous disregard for the devastating effects of their language on actual gay-identifying people, especially young people, was the the source of the anger and the hurt. Ron and Beverley Belgau's address at the World Meeting of Families last week helped some -- it felt like a vote of confidence, or at the least a listening ear (which is one of the things we have so largely been crying out for), on the part of the bishops to invite them.

But the fact that there are so many Catholics out there who would rather scold and judge us, not even for our failures, but for whether and how we talk about the mere fact of being gay, is a long-standing bitterness to me. I suppose it makes sense that the devoutly religious should be among those who accuse, rather than those who help to shoulder the cross. "Shut up and carry your cross like the others," a constant refrain of these writers and their commenters, is the language of the soldiers, not of St Veronica or the Mother of Sorrows; and it rightly provokes disgust and indignance in those who encounter it, and has scandalized some to the point of heresy or apostasy.

O Lord, deliver me from the man of excellent intention and impure 
heart: for the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked.
Sanballat the Horonite and Tobiah the Ammonite and Geshem 
the Arabian: were doubtless men of public spirit and zeal.
Preserve me from the enemy who has something to gain:
and from the friend who has something to lose ...
-- T. S. Eliot, Choruses from "The Rock," V.1-3

But my own self-righteous craving for not only vindication but revenge -- that our, and my, opponents should be not only corrected (which need not be a wholly arrogant desire, though it is usually mixed with arrogance), but embarrassed in the process (which is always an evil desire) -- is certainly no better. Stewing over the faults of others, real or imagined, is wrong; it's what moral theologians call morose delectation, a common flaw of religious people like me, and of many people with an idealistic streak like mine. It's a great way to nurture hatred, sullenness, nasty-mindedness, and self-conceit -- including, interestingly, the decision that we are martyrs. For of course, the mark of a martyr is that he suffers for God, in Himself and in the martyr's fellow-man, and bears these sufferings out of love. But it is perfectly possible to parody the sufferings of the martyr for the sake of our own diabolical ego. Indeed, that sort of spiritual corruption is one of the greatest dangers of the spiritual life, partly because it can be difficult to detect and, correspondingly, difficult to cure.

Thank God for the bottomless wells of grace -- that is, of His Being, of the divine life -- that He shares with us. For that is really and truly the only remedy; no amount of self-examination can assure any improvement, however much it helps.

Trying to find some right, loving way of responding, even if that response were only keeping silence, drew my mind to the whole economy of the Cross on which the Kingdom of Heaven (that is, the Church) operates. In his short book He Came Down from Heaven,* Charles Williams points out the striking contrast between the proclamation of St John the Baptist and the gospel of Christ proper:
What, apart from the expectation of the Redeemer, was the gospel of the Precursor? It was something like complete equality and temporal justice, regarded as the duty of those who expect the Kingdom. What has happened to that duty in the gospel of the Kingdom?

Titian, St John the Baptist in the Desert, ca. 1542
The new gospel does not care much about it. All John's doctrine is less than the least in the Kingdom. It cannot be bothered with telling people not to defraud and not to be violent and to share their superfluities. It tosses all that sort of thing on one side. 
... What then of all the great tradition, the freeing of slaves at the Exodus, the determination of the prophets, the long effort against the monstrous impiety of Cain? The answer is obvious; all that is assumed as a mere preliminary. The rich ... are practically incapable of salvation, at which all the Apostles are exceedingly astonished. Their astonishment is exceedingly funny to our vicariously generous minds. But if riches are not supposed to be confined to money, the astonishment becomes more general.
The long tradition of Christianity as the unofficial but real civil religion of Western society has muddied this a great deal. When the same institution that was premised upon transcending the law must also make itself responsible for first instructing people in the law, and must accordingly develop an intricate body of knowledge and technique for doing so, to say nothing of the rules it has to develop to govern its own worldwide operations -- well, keeping the natural and the supernatural distinct from, yet in contact with, each other is fantastically difficult; as difficult as understanding the simultaneous distinction and union of the human and the divine in Christ. Apollinaris, Nestorius, and the rest didn't fall into heresy out of mere inattentive stupidity. It is horribly easy to suppose that a properly Christian society, or a properly Christian individual, substitutes explicit and pushy religiosity for all other cultural or personal substance, or that the "moral values" of the faith are the thing for which it's chiefly important (as though non-Christians didn't have moral values!).**

An age like our own, in which Christianity has largely but not entirely ceased to be the civil religion, and in which, at the same time, the actual moral standards of society have shifted significantly, is practically begging for believers to confuse natural morality and supernatural grace. But they are as different as they always have been. Natural morality operates on the economy of law, of wrong and right in action and intent; and we cannot do without it, as we cannot do without food. But we can no more treat law as grace than we can treat the Blessed Sacrament as ordinary bread.

Kyri-o's: Intinction never tasted so good.

The economy of law knows justice as its highest virtue, and, when wronged, seeks only recovery and redress; many versions of "forgiveness," like the kind that seeks to forgive because it relieves the stressful distraction of resentment, belong to this economy rather than the other -- i.e., trying to use the golden paving stones of the Heavenly Jerusalem to pay for anti-anxiety meds.

But that is not the economy of the Cross. Its operations are the operations of the Holy Ghost, who cannot be detected, still less caught, by human means. It isn't only that you can't buy grace with money or good looks; you equally can't buy it with intelligence or good character. Truthfulness, patience, kindness, and yes, chastity may all be animated by grace; none of them can earn it.

And that economy, of grace from without, and, with it, of forgiveness and good will towards all others, as universal as that which God showers upon us, is step one of the Christian faith. We don't get to make exceptions based on how horrible somebody was to us. Whether their behavior was, or is, really and truly worse than ours doesn't enter into it; that is a return to the economy of law, of relative goodness and debts owed and just deserts. The first movement of grace is to cancel, not simply our own debts, but debts; currency is made meaningless for the Christian, save insofar as its beauty can furnish decoration to lay beneath our feet. To insist on My Rights and My Wrongs is, simply and to that extent, to excuse oneself from the economy of the Cross. Everything is gift, and so, unrepayable.

What then of our injuries? Well, admittedly, the wind bloweth where it listeth, and we do not all receive the same graces or receive them on the same schedule. We shouldn't presume on our strength, and there are times when we may and must withdraw ourselves from being injured further. But, to return to Charles Williams:
The new way of pardon is to be different from the old, for the evil is still to be known. It is known, in what follows, by the Thing that came down from heaven. ... It remains still exclusive and inclusive; it excludes all consent to the knowledge of evil, but it includes the whole knowledge of evil without its own consent. It is 'made sin,' in St Paul's phrase. 
... Men had determined to know good as evil; there could be but one perfect remedy for that -- to know the evil of the past itself as good, and to be free from the necessity of the knowledge of evil in the future; to find right knowledge and perfect freedom together; to know all things as occasions of love. 
... It was not inappropriate that the condition of such a pardon should be repentance, for repentance is no more than a passionate intention to know all things after the mode of heaven, and you cannot know evil as good if you insist on knowing it as evil. Pardon, as between any two beings, is a reidentification of love ... It is all very well for the Divine Thing of heaven to require some kind of intention of good, not exactly as a condition of pardon but as a means of the existence of its perfection. Men were never meant to be as gods or to know as gods, and for men to make any such intention a part of their pardon is precisely to try to behave as gods. It is the renewal of the first and most dreadful error, the desire to know as gods ... [I]t is precisely the attempt to convert the Godhead into flesh and not the taking of the manhood into God. The intention to do differently may be passionately offered; it must never be required ... The ancient cry of 'Don't do it again' is never a part of pardon.
This is a hard saying. It is, also, hardly more than a commentary on the dictum that we must forgive our brother seventy times seven times. Only Dory and that guy from Memento could do that while also expecting of the offender that he not repeat the offense.

[Image: a devout penitent leaving the confessional]

Grace to others isn't optional. It is the stuff of the life of faith. It is Jesus in action. If we don't know how to show it, or try and can't manage, that's okay; God is not as a rule taken by surprise. We can be weak. We can be one big, gaping, aching need. But what we can't do is refuse grace to others. I admit frankly that I am, for now and probably for a long time yet, avoiding the unnamed authors from my opening paragraph; I have not succeeded in forgiving them, and I can't do it by myself; thankfully God is not bound by my powerlessness. But to forgive, to love, and to want reconciliation -- even if the other party refuses -- is the goal we must have in every conflict. The meanwhile of that, we can offer up to God in unity with the Cross. Every economy has production and consumption; the pain and the hope are our raw material, and love is the refinery.
I say more: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: that keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God's eye what in God's eye he is --
Christ. For Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not His,
To the Father through the features of men's faces.
-- Gerard Manley Hopkins, As Kingfishers Catch Fire, ll. 9-14

*Unfortunately I don't have my copy at hand as I write this, so I can't provide page references.

**The regular recitation of the Athanasian Creed, wisely enjoined upon Anglicans by the Book of Common Prayer in 1662, might -- if it had been rightly used -- have done something to prevent this, with its often dull but soundly detailed definition of the Incarnation. Dorothy Sayers' excellent essay on the subject (and on the general fiercely practical character of theology) can be found here, and in her excellent collection of essays Creed or Chaos?