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.

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

The Technique of Pardon, Part I

Then his lord, after that he had called him, said unto him, “O thou wicked servant, I forgave thee all that debt, because thou desiredst me: shouldest thou not also have had compassion on thy fellow servant, even as I had pity on thee?” And his lord was wroth, and delivered him to the tormentors, till he should pay all that was due unto him. So likewise shall my heavenly Father do unto you, if ye from your hearts forgive not every one his brother their trespasses. 
—The Gospel According to Saint Matthew, 18.32-35

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Yesterday I got back from Revoice’s first conference in St Louis. It was phenomenal. The mere sensation of being in a room full of four hundred people who all either understood from within what it’s like to be queer and a Christian, or had come because they wanted to understand, was so overwhelming that I had to step out and do some deep breathing, several times.

One thing that caught my attention was how often a measured and (I believe) godly anger was expressed towards the homophobic words, actions, and policies that have damaged so many of us, coming from fellow believers. I’ve encountered anger with Christianity before, but it’s generally been the clear result of an injury or string of injuries—which, sadly, is no mystery—and has had the haphazard, defensive, and unscrupulous quality of an immediate response to pain. I can’t blame that sort of anger, but I can’t trust it, either. The anger at Revoice, what there was of it, was different. Not primarily by being gentler or quieter; Matthew 23 is one of the angriest passages in Scripture, and came from a sinless mouth. It was different because it was reasoned, temperate, even calm—equity is passion acting in lucidity, as Charles Williams might repeat. And, startling though it may be to say so, I believe that an anger of this kind is very often an important element in forgiveness.

This is because forgiveness is so generally mixed up with indulgence in our culture, both secular and Christian. Forgiveness means reconciling with somebody who’s done wrong; indulgence means letting them off the consequences. And it is perfectly possible to forgive without indulging, in the knowledge that what’s best for the other person is, exactly, that they should be effectually and memorably corrected. A sex offender might experience remorse over his horrible actions and resolve to reform, but it might or might not follow from that that he should be paroled; indeed, if his remorse and his resolve are sincere, he might want to serve his full sentence.

How, then, are we to approach forgiveness, if it isn’t just letting things slide? The sacrament of Penance shows us the process from the penitent’s side—confession (recognition of our wrongdoing), contrition (being sorry for it and saying so), and absolution (being forgiven). But of course, when we are on the other side of the equation, these steps are not necessary [1]; and God, unlike ourselves, never has difficulty or hesitates to forgive. The technique of penitence, however little we practice it, is tolerably clear in outline. But what is the technique of pardoning?

I believe that this technique does exist, and that it has these three parts: (i) grieving, or recovery; (ii) compassion; and (iii) reconciliation. The first is concerned with ourselves, and the second and third with the person who wronged us.

These three things need not occur in distinguishable, conscious sequence in every act of forgiveness. There are offenses light enough that hardly any recovery is necessary; and conversely, there are offenses heavy enough that we may be able to forgive them long before we’ve finished repairing the damage they’ve done to us. But I take these three steps to be the basic framework on which quite different acts of pardon may be built, the center of the derivations.

I. Grieving

I’ve chosen this name for all of the psychological processing we have to do to recover from a wound. I prefer grieving over healing or some similar adjective for two reasons: first, because grieving a wrong that’s been done to us is very like grieving a death or some other tragic loss; and second, because Americans at least are extremely bad at this—we have a strange aversion to, even an embarrassment about, sadness—so that the idea could use some emphasis.

To be injured changes our universe, at least a little. Any change can require a kind of grieving, and injuries nearly always do. The essential parts of grieving, as I understand the process, are: acknowledging what happened; recognizing that it was wrong; experiencing the pain (along with the anger, sadness, etc. that that may involve); and returning to a place of psychological stability in the new, changed universe.

The trope of the ‘Five Stages of Grief,’ or the K├╝bler-Ross model, is not universally accepted, but it does touch on some of the experiences that many people go through in grief: shock, denial, anger, bargaining, numbness, exhaustion. These emotions have to be allowed their say. Wallowing isn’t a good thing, but repression does (if possible) even more damage, because when you simply tell an emotion No and force it down, it doesn’t go away—it’s like compressing a bag of water, the excess will just bulge out in another place; and when the bag of water is a person, it’s virtually bound to bulge out somewhere unhealthy. So that then you have to deal with the unhealthy consequences, and still go back and do the original emotional work you had refused: patiently and simply letting your feelings be felt. Not obeying every impulse you have, but acknowledging every emotion that this loss or wound has aroused in you. Emotions are messengers, and until their message is delivered they will not let you be.

It is very hard work to just sit with your feelings and let them speak. When you’ve been injured, it hurts to let your heart have its say. But one of two things will happen first: you letting your heart speak, or you dying. Not letting your heart speak isn’t on the table. It’s a part of you.

How do you get past this stage wisely? How do you tell the difference between listening and wallowing? Well, a tell-tale sign of wallowing is when you find yourself going, even slightly, out of your way to provoke the feelings of anger or sadness. That is emotional masturbation, and it’s just as sterile as the regular kind. (I suspect that part of the reason Americans are so skittish about grief is an authentic recognition that sadness and anger have their pleasures, and that these pleasures are extraordinarily dangerous, if not necessarily illicit.) I think a lot of it is just going to be waiting, though; waiting for your emotions to finish talking. All else being equal, they’ll quiet down when they’re done.

All else may not be equal, and the support of good friends, good pastors, and (depending on the nature of the wound) a qualified therapist, should not be dismissed. Even minor wounds often heal better when they heal in a communal context. But everybody has to find the solutions that work best for their own person, their own wound, their own context. A framework of pardon can be made of wood, but it shouldn’t be made of diamond: every person’s needs and graces are different; it’s why God made lots of people instead of, like, six.

Grieving is necessary not as part of forgiving per se, but because without grieving, we aren’t in a position to forgive. [2] There are exceedingly few people whose command over their passions is so complete that they can sincerely forgive while they’re in the throes of anguish; and of the ones that do exist, most of them got that way by hard, excruciating practice. God, being infinite, is always ready to forgive—yet Scripture implies that even our grief is an analogue to something in God, a wrathful or anguished love for his creatures when they sin and would (if it were possible) wound the boundless fullness and goodness of their Creator. Contrariwise, we are finite beings who have to call upon emotional resources in order to act, and are moreover trained from childhood in the half-unconscious techniques of ego-defensiveness against sins and virtues alike. It isn’t shocking that we have difficulty forgiving.

But this difficulty comes in two forms. One, the (for lack of a better word) obvious form, is the proud refusal of forgiveness, Milton’s Sense of injur’d Merit, the festering resentment, the unappeasable egocentrism, that will not pardon one who has blasphemed our great god Self.

The other form is less straightforward, more subversive, and, I believe, more responsible for the evil reputation of forgiveness has in our society today. It is to indulge—that is, to release from consequences—without the offender’s repentance. This is the parody rather than the rejection of forgiveness: indulging everything, allowing everything, pretending that sins don’t matter. In small social gaffes, it can be appropriate merely to indulge, but when you try the same technique with real injuries and injustices, the result is disastrous. It destroys the human dignity from which forgiveness has to operate, by implying that the offense wasn’t really an offense at all; in the name of being civil or kind or respectful, it voluntarily reduces itself to a subhuman status. Authentic forgiveness is a weapon against evil, overcoming it with love; indulgence without forgiveness enables evil, encourages it to consider itself normal or even positively good.

It is because this parody is so often represented as ‘forgiveness’ that I specially accent grieving as a necessary preliminary to the other steps of the technique of pardon. Naked indulgence reckons without the human dignity of the victim-pardoner, and to grieve is (among other things) to assert one’s dignity and humanity. Christians, who ought in theory to understand forgiveness better than other people, are as subject to these misconceptions as anybody else; the only culturally prominent exponent of genuine forgiveness I can think of is an apostate, Joss Whedon, whose depictions of the complexities of forgiveness in Buffy the Vampire Slayer [3] and Firefly are remarkable for their truth to the process and their intuitive comprehensibility.

I’ll leave compassion and reconciliation for a later post.

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[1] Not necessary, that is, in the exercise of forgiving the specific offense. We are virtually always sinners as well as sinned against, absolvers of our victims and suppliants of those who have wronged us.
[2] Ordinarily, anyway. I don’t rule out the possibility of graces that exceed normal human capacities; I mean, that’s kind of the point of Catholic Christianity. But our normal duty is to follow the normal way of things, because it’s what we encounter the most, and the miraculous is by definition exceptional.
[3] I’m pedantic enough that I feel the need to point out the Buffy clip here entirely misconstrues the Catholic doctrine of Purgatory: it is not a realm of directionless punishment (that would be Hell), but of cleansing and completion—a little bit like the Buddhist idea of bardo, where the dead sort out their issues that remain unresolved from life, though even bardo is less decidedly positive than Purgatory. But obviously that isn’t the main idea of the Buffy scene.

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Seven (Deadly Sins) of Nine (Personality Types)

The worst part of the joke (?) in the title is, I'm not even a Star Trek fan; I just couldn't resist the (barely) pun.

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I had coffee with my sister today, and at one point our conversation turned to the Seven Deadly Sins and their intersection with the Enneagram. The former, as everyone knows, is a device long used by the Church to explain how sin tends to work; the latter is a personality typology system, obscure in origin but remarkably helpful in self-work. [1] The cross-pollination of the two has led me to a much richer understanding of what the Seven Deadly Sins mean, which in turn has afforded me powerful tools for the spiritual life.

The Seven Deadly Sins, or more properly Capital Sins, are: superbia or pride, invidia or envy, ira or wrath, acedia or sloth [2], avaritia or avarice, gula or gluttony, and luxuria or lust. Some confusion can emerge over these; for example, why aren't cruelty or murder or blasphemy on the list? The answer is that these seven sins are called capital, from the Latin word for 'head,' because they're the fundamental kinds of sinfulness, the basic motives by which we sin. (To call them deadly is thus rather arbitrary; a better alternative might be to say that they are radical or root sins.) The attraction of the number seven, so often linked to magical or mystical concepts and corresponding to so many other groups of seven in the Catholic tradition, doubtless encouraged the use of this model in catechesis; but this list descends from older and slightly more variegated lists of sins, which are themselves drawn from the wisdom of the Desert Fathers.

The origins of Enneagram, as I said, are not clearly known. Sometimes it is connected with Sufism, but the Sufis themselves disclaim inventing it and their are Sufis who neither know nor care about it, so I think we can safely disregard that theory. Anyway, it doesn't matter. What matters is that it's a helpful tool for self-work, and one of the ways that it's helpful is that it defines each personality type, not in terms of external traits like astrology, but in terms of the interior logic of the mind. And that, in turn, means that it is specially well-equipped to identify the chronic weakness of each type.

This post isn't an Enneagram primer or anything, but the insights I've taken from that system have prompted me to view the Capital Sins through its lens, and I've accordingly seen fit to divide and describe the sins in this way: pride (arrogance), pride (vainglory), envy, wrath, sloth (accidie), sloth (cowardice), avarice, gluttony, and lust. Here's what I take each one to mean, in Latin because you can't stop me and then in English for clarity. Do note that my descriptions here aren't necessarily what the Christian tradition as a whole has consistently meant by these terms—they're simply what I have found to be most helpful in trying to understanding the operation of the spirit.


All pride is focus on self at the expense of God and our neighbor; but we may do this in different ways. One way is to be so preoccupied with ourselves (whether in conceit or self-loathing) that we place no value in anything that anyone else thinks of us. A person in thrall to arrogance not only sloughs off criticism, but despises praise—at best they think it no more than their just deserts, and at worst, they despise anything that comes from others as unworthy of themselves.


This is the other and more comical sort of pride, what we commonly call vanity or ego. This kind of pride desperately wants the opinion of others; usually it wants their approval, but some rebellious psyches will accept or would rather have disapproval, as long as it means attention. Unlike adrogantia, which worships ourself, vana-gloria worships what others think of us; it is a very sociable sin (though not necessarily a pleasanter one).


The English and especially the Latin names for this sin are extremely beautiful as well as solidly traditional, so I was reluctant to change them. However, envy in modern English principally carries the sense of jealousy (though without its specifically sexual connotations), and invidia is broader than that: it literally means 'an un-look,' that is, the evil eye. Hatred of others' happiness or malicious pleasure in their anguish is one form of invidia, but this sin is, more generally, distress that other people enjoy things we don't or can't. Shame, self-contempt, and self-pity, even when not combined with malice against others, are forms of envy in this sense.


Anger is a fairly straightforward sin to recognize, but its inner nature is less well-understood than its manifestations. The key to ira is that it isn't simply an overflow of the aggressor impulse—however much that may influence proneness to anger or our style of expressing anger. Rather, ira is the soul's response to what it has determined (fairly or not) to be injustice, when that response is allowed to run amok rather than channeled by the reason. Righteousness, real or perceived, is always the premise of wrath.


Sloth in this sense is indifference: laziness, can't-be-bothered-ness, the dismal flagging of desire for goodness and eventually of desire in general. 'It doesn't matter' is the lie at the rotten core of this apple of the knowledge of good and evil, a diabolical parody of the innocence of our first parents. This, in Dantean language, is 'Love Defective,' punished in Hell (or rather, just outside of Hell) by its perpetrators being forced to run after a mutating banner in a changeless ring, and purified in Purgatory by a superficially similar ceaseless race. In either case, I suspect Dante was right that only a moderated yet unpitying discipline can get through the fog of accidie.


This is an altogether different beast from accidie. Cowardice can know and even love the good, in a way; its flaw is panic. Experiencing fear is universal to mankind, but ignavia gives in to fear and pain when it not only should stand its ground, but has the capacity to do so; St Peter's denial of Christ was an act of ignavia, as his rapid and thorough repentance shows, for if he had been merely indifferent he would not have been hurt and horrified by what he had done. Unlike its cousin, this species of sloth can (I believe) be reached best by tenderness and patience, tactics practically the opposite of those appropriate to curing desidia.


Avarice—sometimes called more simply greed, but avarice is a better word because greed can signify many kinds of indulgence—is generally thought of as the love of money, or at broadest the love of possessions and status. That's more or less true. However, like wrath, avarice merits a closer look. Where ira springs from a sense of righteousness, avaritia springs from a sense of security; it isn't merely the love of power (which more properly belongs to vainglory) or of beautiful things (which is really a species of gluttony, as we'll see in a moment); it is an addiction to the, ultimately illusory, sense of safety that position and assets bring. 


Gula is generally thought of in terms of food. However, it can be thought of (I think) more profitably as a preoccupation with pleasure in general, whether the pleasures of the palate or of anything else. Addiction to pleasure—in food, in sex, in beautiful objects, or whatever else—is much the same passion and works much the same way, regardless of its object. Gula is thus a fairly concise sin, if a difficult one for the vast majority of people to resist.


The name lust is in some ways unfortunate: in archaic English it merely means 'craving, desire,' and conversely in contemporary English it has an exclusively sexual sense (which, ironically, the word porn can reverse, inasmuch as something that appeals to any strong interest X tends to be referred to as 'X porn'). Anyway, lust is normally taken to mean a preoccupation with sexual pleasure; and while that certainly exists, I think we must be careful to understand lust in terms of human sexuality, which is a relational thing. Anybody who really did enjoy sex merely in terms of sensations, and not in terms of human connection (or the illusion of it), would fornicate out of gula rather than luxuria; luxuria dotes on the connection, wallows in romanticism, perhaps worships its beloved, certainly worships its relationship. Lust places people before God as gluttony places pleasure before him, or as avarice places security before him, or as accidie places nothing before him.

The Enneagram, at least as I've seen it formulated, doesn't actually use these nine 'capital sins' to define personality—for one thing, personalities aren't defined merely by their characteristic flaws, and for another, I wasn't the one who came up with the system. But I think this works as an illuminating way of approaching sin when we examine our consciences, both in going to Confession and in everyday life.

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[1] Some Catholics are under the impression that the Enneagram is part of the New Age movement, or has been condemned by the Church, or something else along those lines. Given how nebulous the idea of 'New Age' is, the former could perhaps be true, but not in a sense that mattered; the latter is simply false. There are irresponsible Enneagram proponents out there, some of whom combine it with other ideas or techniques that are less wholesome, but in strict fairness the same thing is true of the Nicene Creed. The best expositor of the Enneagram that I've yet come across is Beatrice Chestnut (although Don Richard Riso and Russ Hudson wrote at least one fairly good book on the subject too).
[2] Also, in a delightful archaism, sometimes called accidie (AK-si-dee), or by its Latin name. Why acedia seems to be more frequently called by its Latin name than the other six, I have no idea.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Five Quick Takes

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I got back from a five-day visit to the Adirondacks this past weekend. It was gorgeous, it always is, but I cannot say I’m sorry to be back in the land of air conditioning and cell phone reception. The insects were especially bad this year: I brought a canister of Off and so did several other people, and I’m still covered in bites from deerflies and mosquitoes.

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The McCarrick scandal, especially when set beside the corruption and incompetence of the Archdiocese of Baltimore—the squalid matter of The Keepers, though hopefully the worst of it, is yet only a part of it—it’s all stuff I am unfilially glad I’ve escaped by being incardinated into the Ordinariate back in 2013. But all the same, I am perfectly sure that the reason the Ordinariate has not been rocked by any scandals of that magnitude is that we’ve only existed for six years. We are as full of people as any other diocese, and we will necessarily bring all the same human problems with us into the one, holy, Catholic, and apostolic Church.

The first evangelist was a prostitute1; the first Pope was an apostate; the mind behind most of the New Testament was a judicial murderer. I worry about anyone whose faith is at all grounded in the misguided belief that Catholics are generally better than other people. They’ll have to face a harsh morning, and so much the harsher if they hit the snooze button.

This is not to deny the magnificent witness of the saints. Our Lord the Spirit has made quite ordinary human beings into miracles of wisdom, joy, self-mastery, courage, and compassion, and several of them (Joan of Arc, Thomas More, John of the Cross, Mother Teresa) were instrumental in my own conversion, as ruthlessly intellectual as I told myself it was. But there is a very great difference between observing, in an individual life, the diagrammatized exposition of the Glory, and attributing the Glory to the diagram. You might just as well suppose that a good novel must necessarily have been written on a nice computer.

1I am aware that there is debate over whether St Mary Magdalene was the same person as the (euphemistically so called) ‘sinful woman’ of Luke 7. I personally think that they were the same person, for a few reasons; but whether I’m correct or not, the popular accusation that this was a smear campaign against the Magdalene is patently ridiculous from a Christian perspective. There is no past that could constitute a smear campaign. Even if there were, all of the Apostles would still have to be ranked lower than she on the social hierarchy.

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I am nearly always reading something by Charles Williams, and last week, one of the few books I brought with me into the mountains was a single-volume copy of Taliessin Through Logres and The Region of the Summer Stars, his two enchanting books of Arthurian poetry. In both, Williams writes on multiple allegorical levels—the first author, perhaps, to successfully bend Dante’s bow in six hundred years. Thus the Byzantine Empire (more exactly, the Roman Empire as seated at Byzantium; Williams’ picture is deliberately anachronistic in several respects) is itself at one level of interpretation; but at another level it is the human body, and at another it is all human society, and at another still it is the kingdom of heaven.

What I find so fascinating about this is, it’s such a tightly constructed allegory that it’s almost self-exploiting. There were many more poems that Williams intended to write, before his untimely death in 1945, and between the poems as written, his uncompleted work The Figure of Arthur, and C. S. Lewis’ commentary on both, it’s possible to plausibly reconstruct substantial areas of the mythos that Williams never had an opportunity to touch on. As I’ve often wanted to write an adaptation of the Matter of Britain, this is really exciting for me.

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If I weren’t so tired of hearing it, it’d crack me up that so many Christians are so firmly convinced LGBT people are locked inside identity-label-cages. Talk to us! We’re not! Or just watch this adorable vlogger on the subject.

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I’m trying to get back into the habit of saying a daily rosary, and I did hit on a great trick: I can’t go on Facebook until I’ve said my rosary. I’ve been applying that rule for two or three weeks, and so far I’ve only forgotten once!

What’s harder is being present in the prayers. Not, I don’t think, because they’re formulas: I do as poorly if not worse when I try to pray spontaneously. But attending mentally to a person who is not present to my senses, even artificially as an e-mail or a social media post or something, is difficult. Everything reminds me of something, which means there’s a lot of noise in my brain. Probably I should learn some concentration techniques, or mind-clearing techniques or whatever. And, obviously, pray about it.

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