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.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Gay and Catholic, Part V: Chrysalis

How long I lay on my bed sobbing for the one love of my life I do not know. Later, I heard Father’s footsteps coming up the stairs. … Suddenly I was afraid of what Father would say. Afraid he would say, ‘There’ll be someone else soon,’ and that forever afterward this untruth would lie between us. For in some deep part of me I knew already that there would not—soon or ever—be anyone else.
The sweet cigar-smell came into the room with Father. And of course he did not say the false, idle words.
—Corrie ten Boom, The Hiding Place

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In my last post I talked a little about Theology of the Body and its approach to sexuality. However, I didn’t talk about celibacy, except to note that at first glance, it doesn’t fit neatly into TOB. Since celibacy is implicitly the state of those who won’t or can’t marry, it’s extremely important—even apart from any question of homosexuality—so I’d like to take a crack at understanding celibacy in the same context.

St Macarius the Great, one of the earliest of the Desert Fathers, with a Cherub.

To do so properly, first, a few words on what celibacy is not. It isn’t running away from sex; that is, people do run away from sex, for lots of reasons, such as fear of intimacy or disease or responsibility; but a mature and integrated celibacy cannot be based on fear. Any renunciation of marriage or of sex that consists in aversion or enmity to the sexual nature of the body is essentially un-Christian, and, in Christians, a serious inconsistency. One reason that the primitive Church was so fiercely opposed to the Gnostic religions, even though they shared a deep reverence for virginity, was precisely that the Gnostics’ asceticism was based on despising the body. A Christian, by contrast, has always been permitted to discipline the body, and even to train it with great rigor; but he trains it as a soldier—he must not brutalize it like a jailer.

To get an idea of what Christian celibacy rightly flows from, I turn to St Paul:

All things are lawful for me, but all things are not expedient: all things are lawful for me, but I will not be brought under the power of any. Meats for the belly, and the belly for meats: but God shall destroy both it and them. Now the body is not for fornication, but for the Lord; and the Lord for the body. And God hath both raised up the Lord, and will also raise us up by his own power. Know ye not that your bodies are the members of Christ? … Every sin that a man doeth is without the body; but he that committeth fornication sinneth against his own body. What? Know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost, which is in you, which ye have of God, and ye are not your own? For ye are bought with a price; therefore, glorify God in your body, and in your spirit, which are God’s.1

The body is for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. That is an extremely weird thing to say—partly because since when is the Lord for anything? I am by no means sure that I understand what St Paul is saying in that verse, but what I think he’s saying is something like this.

The body is the self as gift. Now, God’s design for sex is that we give ourselves completely—not withholding our future, or our fertility, or the integrity of an undivided heart—to one other person; and from this gift of self comes the family. But as glorious as that is, God didn’t design us only for familial happiness, still less only for sexual pleasure. To give sexually is one mode of the gift of self, but it is a mode that is, of itself, intimately bound up with time: the impermanence of everything we see, the subjection of creation to decay and death, is suggested by the whole scheme of sexual reproduction.2

To beget and rear children is, when you come to think of it, a rather fine act of defiance of the apparent futility of the world. For a creature that knows its life will end to choose to bring new life into the world, though it is doomed to die in its turn, can be a bold refusal of the despair death seeks to impose on us; it has a flavor of the absurd in Camus’ sense, or of Henley’s Invictus.

But without something more to the universe than a grand futility to defy, followed perhaps by a ghostly eternity, the defiance (if I may trust my own instincts) is going to pall horribly before the end. We need and want something more. We want something that’s forever, of which romantic love itself is an image—hence erotic love’s indefatigable habit of promising perpetual fidelity, despite the fact that, without the guidance of good thinking and good character, it’s as fickle as a whiskey dick.

I believe this is what the Church means when she describes celibacy as eschatological. To be a celibate, to renounce marriage and fertility for the sake of that something more, points to the end of time, when the economy of generation and corruption will cease to operate, and life as we know it will be taken up into a new kind of life: continuous with the old, but as different from it as a flower from a seed, or a butterfly from a caterpillar.

The body is for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. I am out of my depth here. Yet I can’t help thinking, also, of one of the accounts of the Last Supper,3 which records Jesus’ words about the bread, not that it was given or broken, but simply: This is my body, which is for you. And then: I fill up in my body what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ for the sake of his body.4

Is there some sense in which the body of the celibate is for others? I think that there must be, if only because, for the Christian, everything is for others: Even the anchorite who meditates alone, / For whom the days and nights repeat the praise of God, / Prays for the Church, the Body of Christ incarnate.5 But in the same sense as the Eucharist? Isn’t that presumptuous, even blasphemous?

I don’t know. Certainly our bodies don’t confer supernatural life the way His does. Even when they are made a medium of grace to others, they are precisely a medium that conveys grace, whereas His contains that grace in Its own right. Yet at the same time, if (as St Peter says) we are all priests, we are priests of that single Sacrifice, spread throughout time and space. Only a few of us are Its priests in the sense of confecting and administering It in Its substantial form; all of us are priests of Its spirit and operation in the world. I don’t think it’s impossible that our bodies may—in a way, maybe, that we don’t understand or even perceive—be reserved from the sexual gift in order to be available as an invisible and supernatural gift to sustain others.

How that should be, I’ve no clue. I don’t even know that it’s the case. My last post had a little speculative theology; this is nearly all speculative.

The obvious explanation would be that the celibate has an undivided heart to devote to God and His people, and, as a brute fact, more time at his or her disposal. This seems to be what St Paul is talking about in I Corinthians 7. But something in me revolts against that explanation; merely having more time and attention to give to others seems like a very petty exchange for what seems to be, for most people, the greater part of earthly happiness. (Of course, I say that as someone who’s never been married and may not have any idea what he’s talking about.)

I feel as if I have some inkling of another and mysterious explanation, but I can’t articulate it, even to myself. The closest I’ve ever come is by analogy with this strange passage from Charles Williams’ The Forgiveness of Sins,6 discussing not sexuality but bloodshed:

Those who sincerely reject the Single Sacrifice may be driven back on the many types of it, even if—no, because the centrality of all the types is unacknowledged. But belief in the Single must refuse the multiplicity. The Rite of the shedding of blood for atonement or for achievement is accomplished. No other shedding of that kind is allowed, unless God permits and enforces [it] by physical states or spiritual or both. Women’s periods present the one; the death of martyrs the other; the Eucharist both.

I’ve never seen any other theologian explain, or try to explain, the spiritual significance of menstruation; but Williams was a mystic, that is, a realist, and knew well that if we are to take God’s creation of man seriously then we must actually take it seriously.

How could this truth—supposing that it is a truth—be true of the body of the celibate? I don’t know. I may find out one day but I don’t know now. In what way fertility, that is, the gift of life, can be communicated from an abstinent body … the only model that I know of is the Eucharist. How that can apply to our bodies and lives, I don’t know.

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1I Corinthians 6.12-15a, 18b-20, King James Version. For a more modern translation, click here.
2Maybe if humanity had not fallen, sexuality would be radically different in ways we probably can’t imagine. Or, alternatively, maybe we would have filled the earth and subdued it, and then stopped reproducing, transcending sexuality as we know it in a way that, again, we probably can’t imagine. But we would certainly have been sexual beings: original sin damaged and weakened us, but it didn’t change what we are as beings. Regardless, sexuality as we know it is bound up with the time process that, for us, means the inevitably of death.
3Specifically, that related by St Paul in I Corinthians 11.23-25. There is some variation among the manuscripts of this passage—some ancient authorities do include broken or given—but the bare which is for you is doubtless the correct reading, the participles probably being added (perhaps accidentally) by later copyists on analogy with the accounts in the Gospels.
4Colossians 1.24.
5T. S. Eliot, Choruses from ‘The Rock,’ II.41-43.
6And when someone goes out of their way to call something Charles Williams wrote strange, you’re in for a doozy. (This quotation comes from p. 196 in my copy, which is published in a single volume with He Came Down from Heaven.)

Monday, April 18, 2016

Gay and Catholic, Part IV: The Self as Gift

We were in love and a child seemed absolutely necessary. Not because it was expected or because we loved kids. It was more about how much we loved each other. She couldn’t let me sleep, and I’d follow her around everywhere when I was awake. That’s what the cool people who mock breeders don’t understand: that there can be a love bigger than two people. And it swells and spills when you’re together. We wanted a baby to share because not having a child seemed wasteful.
… I stared around the corridor to see her still in her white silk nightgown dancing in our living room. Swaying and spinning like a ballerina angel, the soft fabric of her gown flowing behind, following her motions. Quick and sudden. Erratic, if not so graceful. And though her body moved in long fluid glides, I was struck by her arms, which stayed folded at her chest. I expected exaggerated sweeps and points, but she held them tight.
And then I realized she was holding our baby. Our baby that was never born, but in the still of her arms, it could not have been more real, and she spun and spun and swayed and never let it go. And no matter how tightly she held her arms, the emptiness could not contain all the love that poured from her.

This animal, this thing begotten in a bed, could look on Him.
—C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters XXXI

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Courtesy of Randall Munroe and his dislike of copyright law.

My last post addressed some major reasons that I’m Side B, as opposed to Side X or Side Y (terms explained in the first post); the post before that, on the clobber passages, dealt with part of the reason I’m Side B rather than Side A. But I said there that the clobber passages form only a small part of my reason for espousing a traditional view of sexual ethics. I’d like to get into that more deeply now.

It’s hard to do, partly because I’ve never really felt that I got it. The commonest Catholic argument relies on natural law theory; it makes sense to me, but it’s never seemed to make homosexuality an important enough difference to be worth forbidding. Especially considering the cost in heartache.1

A different tack is suggested by St John Paul II’s famous tome, Theology of the Body. Now, I have only read the book once and it is remarkably hard to understand—not just on account of its language, but because the ideas it discusses are difficult and subtle, and St John Paul definitely deals with them as a professional theologian and philosopher. But I will do my level best to explain what I’ve gleaned from it.2

Pro tip, Catholics: stuff that's clearly trying to say 'Church can be fun!' implies
an entirely different explanation for celibacy than the one you're trying to endorse.

A major theme of the work is that, for humanity, the body is the experience of the self as gift.3 The body is how we come into the world as independent beings: we’re conceived by bodies, carried by a body, given birth by a body, nursed by a body, all without any contribution from ourselves. And when we reach maturity, the desire to give life to new bodies is a standard part of our makeup.5 To the end, from the beginning, the body is both the gift of having a self, and the medium by which we experience every other gift—even the supernatural gifts of the sacraments.

The body is the self as gift. Angels, who don’t have bodies, presumably6 experience their selfhood differently. A naked intelligence, created directly instead of by the mediation of parenthood, would surely receive its existence as a gift, but I doubt that their experience of giving of themselves is at all analogous to ours; this may be one of the things that they desire to look into. And each angel constitutes an individual act of creation, whereas humanity is created as a web: the independence of angels from one another is complete, each individual is like a species unto itself, but the interdependence and, in the last resort, interrelatedness of all men is an unavoidable fact.

And what does all this have to do with sexuality? The contention is that, in sex, we experience one of the ways in which we’re made in the image of God. We display the power to beget: that is, to bring new life into the world, derived from our very bodies, and yet a thing distinct. The animal vehicle was prepared for this over ├Žons of evolution, from microbe to primate, and when the divine image was imprinted on Homo to make him Sapiens, this too was taken up, given a new and unheard-of meaning. The unthinking animal that simply wants its mate was transfigured, into the ghost of a god that wants to breathe a new kind of life over the whole face of the earth.

Which means that engaging in sex in a way that excludes the possibility of giving the gift of life is a kind of refusal of creation. We aren’t obliged to have sex (which is itself a bit of a philosophical puzzle, but if I tried to examine that now this post would never end), but if we do, we can’t deliberately close ourselves to its essential meaning. Contraception, homosexuality, masturbation—even an excessive use of NFP—are ruled out, not because only bad people do them or something ridiculous like that, but because they fail to truly embrace the full significance of sex. When they are well-intentioned, they represent the same thing that Charles Williams (who was as subtle a lover as he was a theologian) described the adulterers Paolo and Francesca representing, in the opening cantos of Dante’s Comedy:

The formal sin here is the adultery of the two lovers; the poetic sin is their shrinking from the adult love demanded of them, and their refusal of the opportunity of glory. … The adultery here is only the outer mark; the sin is a sin possible to all lovers, married or unmarried, adulterous or marital. It is a sin especially dangerous to Romantics … At the Francescan moment the delay and the deceit have only begun; therefore their punishment—say, their choice—has in it all the good they chose as well as all the evil.7

The idea here is not that gay people are any less dignified or worthy of receiving and giving love4 than straight people. (There are Christians that think that; it’s shitty theology as well as a shitty attitude.) It is that sexuality has, at any rate for us humans, a specific character and purpose, and that, having received our bodies as a gift, we are obligated to use them in accord with the design of the One who gave them, whether we’re straight or gay or anything else. If we want a kind of sexual experience that doesn’t embody the full gift of self—even if it happens to be heterosexual—then yes, we have to refrain from fulfilling that want; and, if the only kind of sexual experience we want is one that doesn’t embody the full gift of self, then yeah, we’ll have to refrain entirely. And that sucks big time.4

Though we might find it comforting with regards to some people.

But is that the way it is? Ha, of course I’m not going to tell you this time.

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1We certainly aren’t all unhappy all the time, not even me. Some Side B gay Christians aren’t unhappy at all, and take to celibacy like ducks to water. But some of us are, and it’s over the sadness that the intellectual (and individual) difficulties arise. No amount of pointing to happy celibate people erases that.
2Helped in no small part by my spiritual director, as well as the writings of Christopher West. Some Catholics complain about West’s reading of the text, especially his accent on (and, to many, idealization of) marriage; and I don’t agree with him in every detail myself. All the same, he’s one of the most accessible commentators on TOB, and I think his contribution extremely valuable.
3The fact that this sentence can be read two ways4—gift as given to us, or gift for us to give—is deliberate.
5Sexually the desire is virtually though not quite universal, and emotionally it doesn’t seem far behind.
6Looots of speculative theology going on here. Fair warning.
7The Figure of Beatrice, pp. 118-119.

Friday, April 8, 2016

Gay and Catholic, Part III: Androphilia

Trying to appreciate a thing is a good way of finding out that thing’s best qualities, and men are things, especially to a hustler. Many men are heroic in their refusal to be pathetic, and hustlers are sometimes the only people to get a glimpse of a man in his loneliness, or in the weakness of his desire. And it is sometimes only by seeing this contrast—of a man on his knees who is normally a pillar of strength—that we can see the heroic aspect.
—Rick Whitaker, Assuming the Position

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Since I just wrote about the clobber passages, I’m supposed to write about Theology of the Body next. And I do plan to do that, but not just yet. First I want to explain what being gay means to me, because I was gay before I was Catholic; I brought my gayness to Catholicism, and in some ways I feel more like a gay man trying to make sense of religion than a Catholic trying to make sense of homosexuality.1

I have frequently been asked, not to say challenged, by Christian friends2 as to why I use the word gay instead of saying something like I struggle with same-sex attraction. There are a multitude of answers, one of the strongest (in my opinion) being that the word gay, unlike nearly all its proposed alternatives, is mercifully short. However, in reading Eve Tushnet’s Gay and Catholic, which I just started (finally!), I stumbled on an articulation of another reason, which I’ve long felt but couldn’t express very well. Describing her conversion, she writes:

I tried to get my friends to explain the Church’s teaching on homosexuality. They had never raised the issue with me before, which showed great intuitive insight on their part.  I think if they’d assumed that they were ‘supposed to’ witness to me by talking about God’s plan for my sex life, I would have been put off by the arrogance of their assumptions: assumptions that they knew better than me which questions were important to my spiritual life and assumptions that they as well-meaning straight people understood homosexuality better than I did. … People sometimes refer to me as ‘struggling with same-sex attraction.’ That language ignores the fact that I don’t particularly struggle with my orientation. … For many people, this language separates out a part of themselves and animates it, making it into a kind of living enemy, which plays into a lot of self-hatred and makes them feel internally divided rather than united in love of Christ.3

That spoke to me really strongly. I’ve always been put off by the language of struggle, and on reading this, I was finally able to articulate succinctly one of the major reasons why: it suggests that there is nothing to my sexuality except sexual attraction. And that just isn’t true.

The Catechism itself goes—well, not out of its way, but to some lengths, to recognize that there is more to sexuality in general than just attraction: it spends twenty paragraphs4 going over the deeper meaning of sexuality as a dimension of the mystery of the body, a medium of relationship, and a major field of integration and self-mastery. That’s a hell of a lot more than what makes your dick go up.

And what I feel toward men in general—to say nothing of what I’ve felt toward certain men in particular—is not reducible to being turned on, even when that’s part of it. There are times when the beauty of a particular male body literally takes my breath away. I’m not just sexually interested in men: I like them, I admire them, I’m aggravated by them, I’m fascinated by them.

When I crave a partner, it isn’t as simple and crass as wanting someone to fuck, though no, I’m not above wanting that. It’s wanting someone to fuss over you when you’re sick, someone to bicker with about whether to get a dog, someone to try a new restaurant with, someone whose taste in music is clearly wrong but whose errors you generously tolerate. Most of us want that, and I think I can safely say that most of us want that person to be of one particular sex. Because the, I don’t know, energy that each sex brings to those daily things really is different.5 I don’t just want a miscellaneous live-in friend, I want a husband. Whether that desire can be fulfilled, and if not, what it means, are distinct questions; but that’s the point of departure for any accurate discussion of those questions.

That’s why phrases like struggling with same-sex attraction are rather repellent to me; it does precisely what Eve describes, making me feel divided and alienated. I think it’s demeaning to insist on talking about homosexuality as a struggle when, for some of us, it’s also something that’s led us to see enchanting beauty and to feel profound love that we might never otherwise have encountered. The men I’ve loved6 have been occasions for delight in and veneration of beauty in creation, and for coming to a much deeper understanding of disinterested self-gift than I had before.

Not everyone has such a positive experience of being gay, and for them, saying I struggle with SSA might make a great deal of sense. What I’m contending is that this cannot be reduced to a formula. Which parts of the experience of homosexuality matter, and in what ways, are going to be slightly different for every person.

And the brute fact is, I don’t really struggle with the attraction anyway. I mean, here it is. What I struggle with is acting on it, or, to be blunter (i.e. more honest), watching porn, jacking off, and hooking up. I dislike the polite-drawing-room tone of struggling with same-sex attraction nearly as much as I object to it reducing the whole erotic dimension of my personality to those behaviors. Life is not like that, and while there is a place for drawing a discreet veil over things—especially to safeguard the dignity and privacy of others—it should never be allowed to obscure the essential reality of something that needs to be talked about.

For me, being gay isn’t primarily about sex. It’s about relationship, and orientation wields influence over our relationships whether we follow it, fight it, or sublimate it. I think relationship is one of the key aspects of reality; it’s written into it right from the source, the Trinity; and I think that something that profoundly affects how we relate to people can be rightly treated as one of the things that makes us who we are. And for me, being attracted to men affects how I relate to people enormously, in negative and positive and indifferent ways. It’s why I don’t have a wife or kids, even though I was not only raised to expect them, but would daydream about them as a child; it’s why I try very hard to listen to and grieve with other people’s experiences of barbaric treatment by Christians, instead of dismissing them as exaggerated or exceptional; it’s why I watched Freier Fall.7 This is the thing I’m bringing to my Catholic faith and life, and it’s a complicated thing. It can’t be shut away from the rest of me as just something I struggle with.

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1Of course, both are true. But trying to outline the exact nuances of each would be like fitting wheels to a tomato: time-consuming and completely unnecessary.
2Among others.
3Pp. 40-41, 67, with minor adaptations.
5I’m not trying to explain exactly what that difference is here—that’s beyond my competence. Still less am I trying to say that there is no variation between people of the same sex, which is a gender theory for lunatics: two given people of opposite sexes may be far more alike than two people of the same sex. I’m only saying that sexual orientation is an orientation to something that really exists—gender—and that isn’t as simple as what shape your pectorals and genitalia have.
6Usually these loves have been unrequited, but, though that has meant they taught me different things from my requited love, I find that they haven’t taught me any less for the difference.
7Excellent film (directed by Stephan Lacant, 2013); warning: butt stuff.