Christ is risen!

Why people do what they do is always and everywhere a most interesting question, and a pressing one.  I do not know if there are any really completely satisfying answers to it, but the most satisfying of the available answers I have yet heard is this one.  S. John Chrysostom’s paschal homily is an obvious choice for a Christian to make, and particularly a Christian of Eastern persuasion.  (I can claim no bonus points for originality.)  But from the first time I heard the sermon preached, it has continued to satisfy the whole of me—emotions as well as intellect—more than any other short statement of belief (or unbelief) I can call to mind.  It surprises anew, and satisfies anew, every year.

After the long silence of Lent, this one text—please forgive my presumption!—seems to make everything else in the Church, worthwhile; as this one day—the day of Resurrection—makes all life worthwhile.

Christ is risen!  Happy feast!


Victor de Villa Lapidis


If any man be devout and love God,

Let him enjoy this fair and radiant triumphal feast!

If any man be a wise servant,

Let him rejoicing enter into the joy of his Lord.

If any have labored long in fasting,

Let him now receive his recompense.

If any have wrought from the first hour,

Let him today receive his just reward.

If any have come at the third hour,

Let him with thankfulness keep the feast.

If any have arrived at the sixth hour,

Let him have no misgivings;

Because he shall in nowise be deprived therefore.

If any have delayed until the ninth hour,

Let him draw near, fearing nothing.

If any have tarried even until the eleventh hour,

Let him, also, be not alarmed at his tardiness;

For the Lord, who is jealous of his honor,

Will accept the last even as the first;

He gives rest unto him who comes at the eleventh hour,

Even as unto him who has wrought from the first hour.

And he shows mercy upon the last,

And cares for the first;

And to the one he gives,

And upon the other he bestows gifts.

And he both accepts the deeds,

And welcomes the intention,

And honors the acts and praises the offering.

Wherefore, enter you all into the joy of your Lord;

And receive your reward,

Both the first, and likewise the second.

You rich and poor together, hold high festival.

You sober and you heedless, honor the day.

Rejoice today, both you who have fasted

And you who have disregarded the fast.

The table is full-laden; feast ye all sumptuously.

The calf is fatted; let no one go hungry away.

Enjoy ye all the feast of faith:

Receive ye all the riches of loving-kindness.

Let no one bewail his poverty,

For the universal kingdom has been revealed.

Let no one weep for his iniquities,

For pardon has shown forth from the grave.

Let no one fear death,

For the Savior’s death has set us free.

He that was held prisoner of it has annihilated it.

By descending into Hell, He made Hell captive.

He embittered it when it tasted of His flesh.

And Isaias, foretelling this, did cry:

Hell, said he, was embittered,

When it encountered Thee in the lower regions.

It was embittered, for it was abolished.

It was embittered, for it was mocked.

It was embittered, for it was slain.

It was embittered, for it was overthrown.

It was embittered, for it was fettered in chains.

It took a body, and met God face to face.

It took earth, and encountered Heaven.

It took that which was seen, and fell upon the unseen.

O Death, where is thy sting?

O Hell, where is thy victory?

Christ is risen, and thou art overthrown!

Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen!

Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice!

Christ is risen, and life reigns!

Christ is risen, and not one dead remains in the grave!

For Christ, being risen from the dead,

Is become the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep.

To Him be glory and dominion

Unto ages of ages.


Published in: on April 24, 2011 at 3:42 pm  Comments (3)  

The Changing Character of the Debate

Tom Krattenmaker, a commentator on religion and public life based in Portland, Oregon, published an interesting piece this week arguing  that sooner or later, most Christians (in North America and Western Europe anyway) are going to have to adapt to a politics and society in which queer people bear and exercise more rights than they have before.  Our rapid political and social progress  on this issue over the last ten or twenty years should not of course be taken for granted—no change is guaranteed, or permanent—but Krattenmaker calls attention to the one and only fact which makes me (very cautiously) optimistic about our near-term prospects inside the Church: a new generation of faithful are coming of age, some of whom are beginning to be ordained, many of whom have quite consciously been formed and educated right alongside their openly queer brothers and sisters.  Pure, distilled, irrational hatred remains real enough, but own experience has been that even the most conservative elements in the Church, who are of my age and background, have substituted for that former hatred a kind of hypocritical and almost regretful condescension.  That may not seem like much just now, but I think it’s telling.  Krattenmaker:

It appears increasingly obvious that social acceptance of gay men and lesbians and insistence on  their equal rights are inexorable. If the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” weren’t enough to signal the turning point, or the classification of several gay-resisting Christian right organizations as “hate groups” by the Southern Poverty Law Center, there came news that [the ex-gay advocacy group] Exodus International was ending its involvement in the anti-homosexuality “Day of Truth” in U.S. high schools. “We need to equip kids to live out biblical tolerance and grace,” Exodus President Alan Chambers explained, “while treating their neighbors as they’d like to be treated, whether we agree with them or not.”

Add it up, and you see a decision point at hand for socially conservative Christian groups such as the Family Research Council that have led resistance to gay rights. Do they fight to the last ditch, continue shouting the anti-gay rhetoric that rings false and mean to the many Americans who live and work with gay people, or who themselves are gay? Or do they soften their tone and turn their attention to other fronts?

Prayerful discernment and simple Christian decency would strongly suggest the latter. The alternative looks worse by the day—a quixotic battle more likely to discredit its fighters and their fine religion than win any hearts and minds for Jesus. Christianity has far worthier causes than this.


Two points here re: Krattenmaker.  First, the public discouragement of homophobic groups like Exodus—and the private regret of individual priests who feel compelled to enforce church law on this matter, though they would really rather not—are evidence that the “conservative” party knows, on some level, that it has lost the argument, but does not yet know how to make the admission, or what then to do about it.  Fr. Hopko’s book strikes me as falling into this category, too. The honest conservatives are fearful, above all for Holy Tradition’s integrity.

But fear, by itself, cannot long sustain a belief system, or a policy.  It requires too strained an expenditure of energy, to hold it all together.  Or so I found, at least.  Sooner or later a critical mass of Christians are going to yield to the actual logic of natural law; and to the obvious implications of their otherwise positive and entirely harmonious relationships with actual queer people in their own families, schools, and work places.

Second, the institutional churches are, in the great sweep of history, ruthlessly pragmatic bodies.  (Which is a good thing.)  Christians have successfully lived under, and sometimes taken on the trappings of, a wide spectrum of political orders.  An institutional religion which can come to terms with Byzantine and Russian emperors, Germanic feudal kings and kinglets, Islamic caliphs, the commercial republics of the Renaissance and Reformation, the democracy in America, and even conclude concordats with the likes of a Napoleon, Hitler, or Stalin (however distasteful those concordats may have been), can surely come to terms with this one component of contemporary liberalism.

That is not to say that all those different political forms I have just named are equally just or unjust, or equally useful or unuseful for the preaching of the Gospel.  They are not.  But it is to say that prudent people, ecclesiasts included, do tend to know where their real interests lie, and where and when to compromise.

For Christians, the answer to the question of who Christ is, is (truly) a hill to die on.  (So is the question—pace my more radical Protestant friends—of what is the Church.)

Call me crazy, but sexual ethics is not.


Victor de Villa Lapidis

Published in: on February 19, 2011 at 11:52 am  Comments (7)  
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Reasonable Doubt

At their remoter fringes philosophy and theology have historically tended to degenerate into occultism and magic.  Antiquity—with its profusion of engrossing mystery cults, its dogmatic pseudo-philosophical sects—knew this temptation very well.  And so do we: witness the New Yorker’s Scientology exposé this week.

For the religious, as well as for secular people with a benign interest in religion, this kind of reading is obviously very troubling.  In the first place we are troubled in approximately the same way that a conscientious democrat might be troubled by discovering the word “Democratic” perversely inserted into the official style of the East German or North Korean state.  The false imitation offends.

(Full disclosure of my own bias: civilized countries—like France and Russia—prosecute Scientologists for fraud.)

At the same time, however, those who are religious cannot help but feel the implied critique of their position.  Just as the Scientologists, we make use of “spiritual technologies”—except that they are prayer, fasting, and alms-giving; we, too, practice hierarchically-ordered rites of initiation—the sacraments or “mysteries”; we, too, occasionally practice “disconnection”—that is, excommunication; we, too, have preferred internal disputes to be settled internally, by ecclesiastical courts or arbitration.  The conceptual and real differences between Christianity and Scientology are vast (it should be needless to say); the existence of a superstitious cult should not be deployed as an argument against religion in general (as if Denis the Areopagite or Thomas Aquinas had never lived or thought or written).  But the implied critique—let’s call it the critique of naive, tyrannical credulity, the critique of religion as it is often believed and practiced by people who lack the intellectual humility of a Denis or a Thomas—should indeed be taken to heart.

The New Yorker piece profiles Canadian film-maker Paul Haggis, who publicly split with Scientology at the time of California’s Proposition 8, because of a perception that Scientology is homophobic.  One of the more interesting stories recounted in the article concerns Haggis’ daughters:

The girls demanded to be sent to boarding school, so Haggis enrolled them at the Delphian School, in rural Oregon, which uses [Scientology-founder L. Ron] Hubbard’s Study Tech methods. The school, Lauren says, is “on top of a hill in the middle of nowhere.” She added, “I lived in a giant bubble. Everyone I knew was a Scientologist.”

For one course, she decided to write a paper about discrimination against various religions, including Scientology. “I wanted to see what the opposition was saying, so I went online,” she says. Another student turned her in to the school’s ethics committee. Information that doesn’t correspond to Scientology teachings is termed “entheta”—meaning confused or destructive thinking. Lauren agreed to stop doing research. “It was really easy not to look,” she says. By the time she graduated from high school, at the age of twenty, she had scarcely ever heard anyone speak ill of Scientology.

Alissa was a top student at Delphian, but she found herself moving away from the church. She still believed in some ideas promoted by Scientology, such as reincarnation, and she liked Hubbard’s educational techniques, but by the time she graduated she no longer defined herself as a Scientologist. Her reasoning was true to Hubbard’s philosophy. “A core concept in Scientology is: ‘Something isn’t true unless you find it true in your own life,’ ” she told me.


Victor de Villa Lapidis

Published in: on February 12, 2011 at 12:30 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Of Note

A friend and convert to Eastern Orthodoxy over at State of Formation has written a brilliant post on the subject of “Communion Secrets: Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Money-quote:

When I began learning about the Orthodox Church during college, I was enamored with its liturgy, prayers, music, and icons. And I confess that there was something in me that was drawn to its seemingly monolithic authority. We claim to be the Church of the Apostles that has preserved the faith for two thousand years. Though some may laugh at the seeming naïveté of this claim, Orthodox believers find deep comfort and stability in a tradition that reaches far beyond our current cultural situation. It is all the more painful, then, when our tradition not only fails to adequately address present-day realities but also insists on judging modernity through the lens of antiquity.

The traditional teaching on homosexuality as recounted by Metropolitan Jonah ignores the reality of many Orthodox women and men struggling to understand their feelings of sexual attraction toward members of the same sex. Even if they choose not to pursue sexual relationships and struggle to remain celibate—a path imposed on them by the church, rather than a gift genuinely given by God—His Beatitude believes that they are condemned by virtue of their being in “a sinful state of self-delusion.”

How are homosexual Orthodox Christians to grow in love, virtue, and relationship with God if they are categorically excluded from the sacramental life of the Church?

Good question.

Published in: on February 8, 2011 at 10:19 pm  Comments (1)  
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Disagreement Between Friends, IV

Part 4: On Persuasion

“I myself have reached the point where I am unable to increase my erudition or theological knowledge and I would rather speak about that which has come to maturity in my soul.”

Anthony Bloom said that, in an interview of 1 August 2000, just three years before he died.  A friend recently called it to my attention, and, like most things the man seemed to say, it was well said. For my part I have tried to argue in this place, and will continue to argue, that homosexuality does not contravene natural law, and need not contravene canon law; that it is forbidden neither by the Christian scriptures nor by the Church’s dogmatic authority: so many words. But words clearly will not persuade His Beatitude Metropolitan Jonas, primate of the Orthodox Church in America, who in his most current statement on the topic at my own home cathedral, on the occasion of the National Right-to-Life March, repeatedly associated homosexuality with abortion (without explanation) and repeatedly asserted their incompatibility with the “gospel of Jesus Christ” (again without explanation).

The metropolitan gives the impression of a man whose mind is made up; and important as rational arguments and counter-arguments may be, they do not seem capable, in the grand scheme of things, of persuading a mind already made up.

So instead of debating the extent of our erudition or our formal knowledge about God, “I would rather speak about that which has come to maturity in my soul.”

The problem here, so far as I can see, is one fundamental to any sub-angelic effort at communication. Your mind works on a set of experiences which in their total range are uniquely yours, and likewise my mind on a total range uniquely mine. Of course I do affirm that there exist meaningful inter-subjective or objective foundations for what we tell each other we know or believe. But whether that affirmation itself be the conclusion to a logical argument, or merely an inference of “common sense,” in the first and final analysis all we do have is our own, and separate, experiences. Thus an exercise of sympathetic or at least empathetic imagination—something akin to Cardinal Newman’s “illative sense,” or to the “eye of the heart” of traditional patristic and monastic wisdom—is always required, in order to hear and assent to another person’s account of his or her experience. Logic by itself isn’t enough.

My favorite example of this in the sphere of profane literature (following S. Gregory the Theologian, amongst others) is the Platonic corpus. Now the person of Plato and his dramatic character Socrates are surely the exemplary apologists for the life lived purely according to reason. Yet Plato the rationalist, who spends a good deal of time criticizing poetic mystifications and sophistic wind-baggery, was also a supremely successful literary stylist, who knew how to appeal to the emotions. Fr. Denis Bradley, philosophy professor at Georgetown and priest at S. Nicholas Orthodox Cathedral, once asked me pointedly, with the usual mischievous grin: “Are you not so much persuaded as charmed by Plato’s dialogues?” A book I read later, about education in the medieval Church, upped the ante still further: was it not the example of Socrates’ dispassionate suffering in his own body which definitively “made” the disciple—chiefly Plato himself, and then all his “footnotes” down the ages who have been lovers of wisdom after him?

Real Persuasion

The point is this. Truth can in part be discerned through the dialectic of argument and counter-argument. But that process—the process of the Platonic Academy, the process of Romano-Byzantine legal procedure—can bear its legitimate intellectual fruits only if the truth is loved to begin with.

And, as everybody can attest, love is not always “rational.”

The complaint we bring against the ecclesiastical hierarchy is, in part, “rationalistic”: it consists of formal disagreements about the meaning of natural law, canon law, and so forth, which we can formally debate. The fundamental complaint, however, is (as ever) extra-rational: it consists of the failure of the hierarchy and of traditional popular culture to communicate with us; or rather it consists of a failure to love. In this fourth and final segment in the series “Disagreement Between Friends,” I will consider the implications of this predicament, and offer some tentative suggestions.

Pages: 1 2 3

A Little Sex Talk

A pastoral letter on chastity issued this week by the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, warns against the “misuse of sex” even inside the institution of marriage—that is, against sexual relations other than traditional intercourse between husband and wife.  The letter singles out pornography as an especial problem, stating that it is “reaching almost epidemic proportion.”  Amongst pornography’s evils, the letter also mentions, is the inducement to masturbation.

Intertwining throughout the document are the good, the bad, and the ugly, of the usual Christian attitudes toward sex.

It is not obvious, pace the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, that all erotic pursuits other than traditional intercourse need be unkind, or unexpressive of unconditional, self-giving love.

One example:

The first graphic description of sex in literature which made a strong impression on me was, by chance, the description of oral sex to be found in the ultimate chapter of Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk’s historical murder-mystery My Name Is Red, set in late sixteenth-century Constantinople.  (Pamuk has, famously, run afoul of the Turkish authorities for calling a spade a spade, and acknowledging the ethnic cleansing of Turkey’s Armenian Christians as genocidal.)  I was eighteen and a newly-minted freshman when I read My Name Is Red, then newly-translated.  Thinking back, I did not care much at the time for the novel’s post-modernist use of multiple narrators, nor for its extremely stylized historical fictions.  But I do remember being struck by one of the novel’s concluding scenes, in which the principal protagonist, the miniaturist painter Kara (or “Black”—as in Kara-mazov), and his beloved Shekure (also the name of Pamuk’s mother), consummate their love.  Black is seriously wounded in the shoulder, which Shekure dresses.  She speaks:

… I warned Hayriye not to let the children upstairs.  I went up to the room where Black lay, locked the door behind me and cuddled up eagerly next to Black’s naked body.  Then, more out of curiosity than desire, more out of care than fear, I did what Black wanted me to do in the house of the Hanged Jew the night my poor father was killed.

I can’t say I completely understood why Persian poets, who for centuries had likened the male tool to a reed pen, also compared the mouths of us women to inkwells, or what lay behind such comparisons whose origins had been forgotten through rote repetition—was it the smallness of the mouth?  The arcane silence of the inkwell?  Was it that God Himself was an illuminator?  Love, however, must be understood, not through the logic of a woman like me who continually racks her brain to protect herself, but through its illogic….

While my mouth was thus occupied, my eyes could make out Black looking at me in a completely different way.  He said he’d never again forget my face and my mouth.  As with some of my father’s old books, his skin smelled of moldy paper, and the scent of the Treasury’s dust and cloth had saturated his hair.  As I let myself go and caressed his wounds, his cuts and swellings, he groaned like a child, moving further and further away from death, and it was then I understood I would become even more attached to him….

While I was confused as to whether the forearm I kissed was my own or his, whether I was sucking on my own finger or an entire life, he stared out of one half-opened eye, nearly intoxicated by his wounds and pleasure, checking where the world was taking him, and from time to time, he would hold my head delicately in his hands, and stare at my face astounded, now looking as if at a picture, now as if at a Mingerian whore….

“You can tell them you were spreading salve onto my wounds.” [1]

"Was it that God Himself was an illuminator?"

I cannot comment on the quality of the English translation, and do not wish to comment on whether this is or is not a “good sex scene.”  What I do want to point out is that Pamuk treats what Black and Shekure do with each other gently, and with compassion.

Black is seriously wounded, near the point of death, an association which is important to make: not only because, as a result of Shekure’s attentions, he moves “further and further away from death,” and because “salving wounds” becomes the couple’s euphemism for sex.  For in fact, as often as we choose to have sex, whether it be of a heterosexual or homosexual variety, vaginal, anal, or oral, we are implicitly acknowledging the power death possesses over us, and our own finitude.  This is true, crucially, even of sex which results in a child—the decision to procreate is at a basic level the decision to be replaced, by another life and another generation.  I am not saying that all sexual acts are equally beautiful or worthy of choice, but no sexual act is exempt from the status of a sign of our impending demise.  That is why virginity is a sign of our impending eternal life, and why a decent society includes any number of consecrated virgins.  Virginity is potentially a state of tremendous personal creativity; in which considerations of sexual orientation and preferences are secondary.  But by the same token, non-procreative sexual acts fundamentally share more in common with procreative, at least so far as the actors are concerned, than the bishops’ letter might care to admit.

Returning to Pamuk’s description of oral sex, one asks, does it enjoy a degree of verisimilitude?

Shekure, in the novel, has rejected Black’s previous advance as lustful and crude, which it probably was, and her primary motivations throughout revolve around the best interests of her family, the final chapter included.  We learn that her marriage to Black will not be free of difficulties; we learn that she does not derive equal pleasure from sex with Black, and from this one sexual act in particular.  And yet, she performs it as he has long desired.  Performing it she “understood [she] would become even more attached to him,” and she became confused which body parts belonged to whom.  The situation is a romantic one, though certainly not an ideal romance; the “unitive” function of sexuality moreover may be experienced apart from the procreative, albeit (always in Shekure’s view) imperfectly.

If we allow Pamuk to tell his story, and if we allow ourselves to examine our own lives and/or the lives of others, I think we have to conclude that oral sex, say, can, in certain situations, be both kind and expressive of love.  To give an ordinary pleasure to whom you love is not evil.

Unkindest Sin

If the bishops’ letter is hyperbolic and sickly politicized, it is not altogether incorrect.

Sex which is unkind, and unexpressive of love, surely is sinful.   One of the many brilliances of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita—which is maybe worth thinking about because the sin which it recounts has since become, for the contemporary media, “the one unforgiveable sin”—is to confuse the distinction between manipulator and manipulated.  That is, a large part of the atrociousness of Humbert Humbert and Lolita’s relations is that each party is caught up, seemingly inextricably, in acts both of manipulating and being manipulated:

Sitting on a high stool, a band of sunlight crossing her bare brown forearm, Lolita was served an elaborate ice-cream concoction topped with synthetic syrup.  It was erected and brought her by a pimply brute of a boy in a greasy bow-tie who eyed my fragile child in her thin frock coat with carnal deliberation.  My impatience to reach Briceland and The Enchanted Hunters was becoming more than I could endure.  Fortunately she dispatched the stuff with her usual alacrity.

“How much do you have?” I asked.

“Not a cent,” she said sadly, lifting her eyebrows, showing me the empty side of her money purse. [2]

Are the relations contracted, just for example, between Calvin Klein and his latest boy toy, Nick Gruber, likely far removed from this?  Is the facial surgery for the twenty-year-old porn star so far removed from the ice cream sundae for the nymphette?

What Money Can Buy: The Two Faces of Nick Gruber

By singling out any and all masturbation, or oral sex, or anal sex, for absolute condemnation, the church hierarchy seem to be missing the forest for the trees.  There is a whole lot of genuine unchastity going on out there, most of all within ourselves, damaged as we are by our society’s ubiquitous pornography and voyeurism and body dysmorphia, and with terrible consequences for our actual love lives, to say nothing of our souls.  It is regrettable that the hierarchy currently lack the insight and the moral authority to address it convincingly.


Victor de Villa Lapidis

[1] Orhan Pamuk, My Name Is Red, trans. Erdağ M. Göknar (New York: Vintage International, 2001), pp. 408-09.

[2] Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita (New York: Vintage International, 1955), p. 115.

Published in: on January 29, 2011 at 8:13 pm  Comments (3)  
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“A Long and Happy Life”: E. Reynolds Price, In Memoriam

… [A]ll Rhodes Scholars didn’t have to fulfill—as I surely didn’t—Cecil Rhodes’s specific stipulation that his Scholars must demonstrate “a fondness for and success in manly sports.”  Once at Oxford, my own sport would become—very quickly—vigorous walking.  On average, even in heavy rain, I’d circumnavigate the perimeter of Christ Church Meadow at least once daily, well over a mile’s walk. [1]

Reading that in the opening pages of Reynolds Price’s 2009 memoir Ardent Spirits—chronicling the three years he spent in Oxford, and then his return to his native North Carolina, in the late 1950’s and early ’60’s—instantly produced in me a great affection for the author, who died this week at the age of 77.  Way back when, when like everyone else I was filling out an unhealthily large number of college applications, I invariably wrote “aggressive non-competitive walking” in the section on sport.  And a few years later, when I found myself, truly unexpectedly, in Oxford, I quickly developed the same habit which Price recounts in his memoir, since Christ Church Meadow is just across the street from my college, Pembroke.  The habit was fortunately contracted, too.  As a consequence of it I made the brief acquaintance of one of Oxford’s most curious recent inhabitants, an elderly and very likely perturbed Arab refugee woman, who refers to herself only as “Zoe,” and who spends an awful lot of time at Christ Church Meadow.  Her knowledge of Oxford’s many trees—which she sketches and re-sketches obsessively—and their individual personalities, is absolutely comprehensive.  It will, I suspect, get her into heaven.  For Christmas 2004 she gave me a small red laminated booklet of her poetry, which I still have, and keep in my icon corner.

My copy of Price’s memoir, which Edmund White reviewed here, also came to me as a gift.  The memoir’s real subject is happiness.

(“What is happiness?” I ask my students.  Glasses are placed in front of each, and two bottles of wine.  Mouths unhinge.)

In a partial answer to the question, Price tells the following anecdote concerning the death of Nevill Coghill’s mother.  Coghill taught English literature at Price’s Merton College and served him in the capacity of a thesis examiner:

Lady Coghill had chosen an inconvenient time to die since Nevill was, I believe, serving as a Schools examiner—whatever, he had urgent duties in Oxford.  He hired a small airplane to fly him from a tiny field in Oxfordshire to the family estate in rural Ireland; but when he arrived, his mother was in a final deep sleep or coma.  He waited with his other muted kin as long as he possibly could before having to return to his professional duties; then he went to in to kiss her sleeping head goodbye.  She showed no response and he turned to leave quietly.  As he touched the latch of her door, though, there came the sudden sound of her voice: “Nevill.”  He turned to see her behind him, half-risen in bed.  She lifted a frail hand and pointed toward him strongly.  “Nevill, remember—I only regret my economies.”

As he finished his story in the dimming room, I could see that his bright eyes had filled.  I stood to leave, knowing that I’d heard a crucial sentence—wisdom indeed, from a dying woman, brought forward by her son who was way past old enough to be my father.  Few things I’ve heard have ever been wiser or of greater use in my own long life; and I pass the story on, every chance I get, to my younger friends and students—the story and the words it embodies (with a pronoun change): You’ll only regret your economies[2]

If taken literally, such a statement would of course be absurd: there are many occasions on which we must be sparing.  Nor is this statement a sentimental example of “cheap grace”: Nevill Coghill was once in the trenches of the First World War, and so can be safely assumed to have known whereof he spoke.  But still the captured thought remains, ancient, possibly antiquated, yet absolutely universal, and the point at which the natural law draws closest to touching the supernatural.  If you would be happy, you must first be generous with your self to others.  In happiness there is no economizing.  If you would be happy, you must first lose your self in something larger than your self.  And if happiness eventually comes in a certain sense involuntarily, it nevertheless requires an initial, voluntary decision, one which is surprisingly difficult to make, not to get in its way (in which doctrine both the Desert Fathers and the Jesuits quite marvelously concur).

For most people, I believe, the “something which is larger than their own selves” is their children.  For Price, that something was the backwoods North Carolina and Carolinians about whom he wrote and whom he taught in the course of his whole life.  For Clifford Stoll, that something is making Klein bottles and catching KGB spies.  For Nico Muhly and Jónsi, that something is musical composition and performance, punctuated by properly ecstatic moments—“Boy Lilikoi” is Francis of Assisi.  For the monk, chanting “his interminable, tinny, nasal, gabbled Kyrie eleisons,” or the sutras of Far-Eastern religion, that something is, in a relatively direct and unmediated way, divinity itself.

Reading about Price’s “ardent spirits”—that is, moonshine—helped to impress on my own mind a plain, minimally adorned, and uniquely New-World sort of nobility.  Price has the Oxford love, but without the pretension.  He talks about the spinal cancer which rendered him quasi-paraplegic with as much humorous good cheer as with genuine pain.  The impression of nobility is, moreover and of necessity, not invulnerable.  Throughout the book Price returns again and again, in such a way as to leave the reader not quite convinced that he really had attained the emotional peace he claimed, to the fact that the first and great love of his life was straight, and thus never was able to reciprocate Price’s feelings for him with perfect equality.

Recounting their travels in Italy during the Easter vac of 1956, Price makes this comment:

We invested more hours in the Uffizi, the Baptistery, the Duomo, the Accademia, the Medici Chapel and palace, and the Piazza della Signoria; and I was further reminded of my satisfaction in accompanying Michael to galleries and other sites—he enjoyed beauty in the way I most admire and find it easiest to travel with, which is to say that he loved it rather silently; it affected his actions, not his chatter. [3]

Happiness does require generosity with our selves, but it does not require us to be loud.  Price, significantly, did not wear his sexual orientation on his sleeve, not because he was afraid or maladjusted—he got out of military service because he told the military exactly who and what he was—but because he understood that “chatter” does not make for a sound theo-/anthropology.

Whereas the “gay community” so-called is deafened by so much chatter—also this week, on a dark note, I learned of the existence of Grindr—can we not rather imitate all the good in this man’s long and happy life?

"Portrait of Reynolds Price," Will Wilson, 1998

Grant rest, O Lord …


Victor de Villa Lapidis

[1] E. Reynolds Price, Ardent Spirits: Leaving Home, Coming Back (New York: Scribner, 2009), pp. 23-24.

[2] Ibid., pp. 286-87.

[3] Ibid., p. 120.

Published in: on January 22, 2011 at 2:55 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Disagreement Between Friends, III

Part 3: The Law of Nature and the Law of the Church

To understand and make use of the perduring sense of “the two laws”—the lex naturalis and the lex christiana—is our central challenge.

In earlier posts in this series, “The Necessity of Dogma” and “The Priority of Scripture,” I tried both to defend the value which conservatives attach to the traditional sources of authority in the Church, and also to defend the skepticism with which liberals point out that these sources of authority do not settle the Queer Question.  For the infallible teachings of the Church are indeed few and far between, and the New Testament does not talk about anything that we would regard as a monogamous homosexual relationship.

There can be no doubt, however, that the Church’s canon law and penitential discipline, and the traditional understanding of natural law or natural right which the Church has assumed, do prohibit any sort of homosexual relationship, as well as any non-procreative sexual activity generally.  The rhetorical legacy of “the sin against nature” still trickles down, moreover, even into the most secular of contemporary contexts.   In its amicus brief filed with the U.S. Supreme Court in the case of Lawrence v. Texas, the American Psychiatric Association found it relevant to cite a 1999 study demonstrating the existence of homosexual behavior in approximately 450 different animal species.  (Not the least of them being the chinstrap penguins, made famous by the years-long courtship of Silo and Roy at Manhattan’s Central Park Zoo.)

For the queer Christian, two problems arise.  The first is the tendency to reject altogether and even belittle the Church’s tradition of natural-law ethical reflection.  John Boswell seems to do just that in his introduction to Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality, where he asserts that “[t]he scientific, philosophical, and even moral considerations which underlay this [natural-law] approach have since been almost wholly discredited and are consciously rejected by most educated persons.” [1] Not only would that be astonishing news to a (politically diverse) host of twentieth-century worthies—in the English-speaking world alone, names like Finnis, MacIntyre, Nussbaum, Bloom, Strauss, Voegelin, and Arendt, all spring immediately to mind—it would also belie the public’s evident interest in mentioning penguins in connection with opposition to Texas’ anti-sodomy law.

The second problem is the tendency in the other direction, that is, adhering to the letter of traditional natural-law theory and canonical law and discipline, without regard for their spirit, or awareness of their historical context.  Fr. Erickson, in the introduction to his anthology The Challenge of Our Past, caricatured such people in the Church, and accurately, as believing that “the Pedalion fell from heaven on Pentecost, along with the Typikon and other such vital compendia of rules and regulations.” [2] Sad to say, but when Pope Benedict XVI—or at any rate his fan club—characterizes anything in modernity which falls short of his idea of Christian society, as a “dictatorship of relativism,” as if there were no intermediate positions, both he and they are no more persuasive than the bearded Orthodox zealot who labels a modest reform of the liturgical calendar as heresy.

Born Under the Law: The Feast of the Circumcision of Our Lord, January 1st

I will make some preliminary comments about each problem in turn.  Given the problems’ extent, and centrality, I expect I will return to them again and again.

Pages: 1 2 3

Published in: on January 16, 2011 at 12:54 am  Leave a Comment  
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On the Incarnation of the Word of God

I used to be a heretic.

Not of course that I subscribed formally to the doctrines of Arius, or of the Manichees, or of any others of the legion of false prophets who have attempted in the course of two millennia to rend the unity of the Church.  I was a heretic not by formal subscription, but by seemingly-irresistible psychological suggestion.

For I did not actually believe in the full logical implications of the Incarnation.  I was happy to acknowledge God’s radical transcendence, indeed nearly to the point of an extremely studied agnosticism (all you neo-Thomists out there who suspect the Eastern Orthodox of being closet-case nominalists about metaphysics are probably right … !); but God’s immanence in the person of Jesus of Nazareth I never made much of.  Again, I was happy to acknowledge the unicity, sanctity, and apostolicity of the Church; but her catholicity (not to mention her evangelical mission to assorted social undesirables, “welfare queens” and the like!) … not so much.  Above all I mistrusted the theological opinion, normative within Christianity as a whole, that created time and matter are by nature good.

In other words I was an average college freshman of right-wing prejudice who had been exposed to a little Plato.  And, I was gay.

Christianity at its best, I recently heard someone say, is a religion of praxis.  S. Maximus Confessor, whose writings comprise the largest part of the Philokalia, the great summa of Greek monastic wisdom literature, puts it very succinctly in his “Two Hundred Texts on Theology and the Incarnate Dispensation of the Son of God,” which I have been reading as an Advent devotion this year:

22.  … [T]here are two forms of knowledge.  First, there is academic knowledge, which is theoretical information, gathered merely from habit, about the inner principles of created beings, and which serves no purpose because it is not directed towards the practical execution of the commandments.  Secondly, there is actively effective knowledge, which confers a true experiential apprehension of created beings. [1]

Now Maximus Confessor is a stern one, like Augustine, and like Augustine should be approached with some delicacy.  But the point here is a good one.  Knowledge which serves no purpose is not real knowledge.  To say therefore of something “it does not work,” is a devastating indictment of that thing.  Moreover, it seems to me significant that Maximus chose to make this point in a (very theoretical) treatise on the Incarnation.

An important thesis of this blog is that several of the opinions traditionally held by Christians about sexuality do not work, or work no longer.

By saying so I do not wish to detract in any way from the witness of Christians, gay or straight, who have chosen the “white martyrdom” of a perfect (and fundamentally happy) continence.  Amongst Christians who have not rejected or belittled their queer identity, Eve Tushnet seems to be an especially admirable example.  But such witness is no more possible or desirable for the majority of gay Christians, than it is for the majority of Christians generally.  If I took one lesson from my study of classical and Christian natural-law ethics, it is that natural ends cannot ultimately be thwarted.  One may, either by government policy or by intense private asceticism of the perverser sort, attempt to stamp out homosexuality, or the taking of interest on loans, or other relatively natural activities which at times have been deemed unnatural.  But one cannot truly succeed in stamping them out; nature ensures there will be consequences.  Amongst the consequences for gay Christians are, almost (if not quite) inevitably, a paralyzing contempt of self, and of God and creation.  “For no man ever hated his own flesh, but nourisheth and cherisheth it,” says S. Paul (Eph. v. 29), furnishing us with the typical Christian natural-law argument for marriage.  He did not make an exception for queers.

As a society we do collectively say and hear too much about “self-acceptance” and “affirmation,” as if vices did not have to be fought and virtues obtained, sometimes bloodily.  But we must take care, lest we misunderstand each other.  It is no vice to live according to one’s nature (however “nature” may be structured by biology and psychology, however mediated by history and language).  And it is no virtue to accuse God of defective handiwork in his creation. 

All those things I used to mistrust—time and matter most of all—become trustworthy in light of the Incarnation.   Maximus Confessor may have been a sterner sort, but he also endured persecution at the hands of Monothelite heretics whose doctrine would have reduced the fullness of Christ’s human nature to a mere abstraction.  And likewise with Augustine, you get the sense that, for all their neuroses, of which there are many, they nevertheless believed that things are by nature good, and that life is at bottom worth living, because they too had stood in the Cave of Bethlehem, and marveled at the virginal birth.

Trop. t. 4: Thy Nativity, O Christ our God, shineth forth the light of Reason over the earth, for in it they who served the stars were by a star taught to adore Thee, the Sun of Truth, and to see Thee from the heights of the East; O Lord, glory to Thee!

Another person recently reminded me of a remark of Fr. Glagolev’s: we know “no theology, except the theology of Wonder—of Marvel, of Amazement, of standing with your mouth gaping like a total idiot.”  To be true to the experience of such wonder—to the engagement with multiform, eccentric, delightful reality—everybody has got to come out of his or her closet, has got to stop hating him or herself, whatever forms his or her particular “closet” and hatred may take.   Doing so is an indispensible precondition of any serious spiritual development.  Grace perfects nature, let us never cease repeating to ourselves.

Christ is born!  Glorify Him!


Victor de Villa Lapidis

[1] The Philokalia: The Complete Text, Compiled by St. Nikodomos of the Holy Mountain and St. Makarios of Corinth, trans. G.E.H. Palmer et. al., vol. 2 (London: Faber and Faber, 1981), p. 118.

Published in: on December 25, 2010 at 5:37 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Bl. Andrew Warhola, Fool-for-Christ

Current controversy concerning the removal of David Wojnarowicz’s video “Fire In My Belly” from the “Hide/Seek” exhibition at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington has generated two interesting open letters from The Andy Warhol Foundation. Wojnarowicz’s video, which uses a crucifix being swarmed by ants to speak about suffering through the AIDS crisis of the 1980’s, was judged by Bill Donohue of The Catholic League to have been “designed to insult and inflict injury and assault the sensibilities of Christians.” (Andrew Sullivan makes a go at explaining the inexplicable, here.) I would like to weigh in on one aspect of the controversy.

The Warhol Foundation, which has funded several Smithsonian exhibitions over the last three years to the tune of $375,000, has responded to this act of censorship by threatening to withdraw all future support from the Smithsonian. The open letters may be found here and here.

Both statements, unsurprisingly, emphasize the value to society of freedom of expression. What they do not emphasize, however, but might well have done, given Warhol’s legacy and the specific nature of this controversy, is the queer contribution to Christian or Christian-inspired art and iconography. For it is a fact to which indeed some art historians and museums have called attention (notably Jane Daggett Dillenberger in her monograph The Religious Art of Andy Warhol, James Romaine in an essay “Transsubstantiating the Culture,” and the Byzantine and Christian Museum in Athens in its exhibition “Warhol/Icon”), but of which the general public probably remains mostly unaware: Andy Warhol was a pious Christian.

That fact is for me of some personal relevance, as it is “all in the family.” Andy grew up in the Russian Dolina in Pittsburgh. His ancestral village, Mikova, is not so very far to the east of Kamienka and Bardejov, my own. And reading the eulogy delivered by John Richardson at his April 1987 memorial service in New York played a small but significant role in my own decision to come out of the closet.

What Richardson’s eulogy offered me was one possible model for a way forward. Here was a queer man, culture-maker, from his youth a producer of homoerotic images …

Reclining Male Torso

… hailing from my part of the world moreover, and an Orthodox Christian in the Roman obedience, a Uniate …

The Last Supper

… whose individual form of witness, largely silent but hugely stubborn—attending the liturgy, occupying a place toward the rear of the church, hiding behind big celebrity sun-glasses, but attending, day after day, year after year, irrespective of what clergy said or whether they deigned to communicate him—whose form of witness, as I say, could perhaps be imitated:

Although Andy was perceived—with some justice—as a passive observer who never imposed his beliefs on other people, he could on occasion be an effective proselytizer. To my certain knowledge, he was responsible for at least one conversion. He took considerable pride in financing a nephew’s studies for the priesthood. And as you have doubtless read on your Mass cards, he regularly helped out at a shelter serving meals to the homeless and the hungry. Trust Andy to have kept these activities very, very dark.

The knowledge of this secret piety inevitably changes our perception of an artist who fooled the world into believing that his only obsessions were money, fame, glamour, and that he was cool to the point of callousness. Never take Andy at face value. The callous observer was in fact a recording angel. And Andy’s detachment—the distance he established between the world and himself—was above all a matter of innocence and of art. Isn’t an artist usually obliged to step back from things? In his impregnable innocence and humility Andy always struck me as a yurodstvo—one of those saintly simpletons who haunt Russian fiction and Slavic villages, such as Mikova in Ruthenia, whence the Warhols stemmed. Hence his peculiar, passive power over people; his ability to remain uncorrupted, no matter what activities he chose to film, tape, or scrutinize. [1]

If I may gloss the text of Richardson’s eulogy, what “the world” mistook for callousness in Andy’s personal relationships and attitudes, was in fact the supreme ascetic virtue of apatheia, “dispassion” or perhaps “purity of heart”; and the spiritual motivation for much of his pop-art was “foolishness for Christ’s sake,” that is, the hard-earned right to (constructive) criticism, irony, and satire.

There are two points here. One is academic. Concerning Warhol’s artistic “detachment,” which I have glossed as ascetic apatheia, I think we can situate the implicit philosophy behind his artwork in the long and venerable tradition of Christian realism which stretches all the way back to the unpolished, popular prose of the Bible itself, and to the encaustic and tempera mummy portraits of the Egyptian Faiyum. In a world sanctified by the Incarnation, where God may be located “betwixt an ox and a silly poor ass,” no detail of history, be it material or psychological, and however obscure a detail it may be, can be utterly without genuine human interest. The Incarnation means, amongst other things, that Campbell’s soup cans and Coca-Cola bottles may be suitable subjects for artistic representation.

The second point here is experiential. “The artist who held the most revealing mirror up to his generation,” as Richardson called him, was in some sense Christian because he was queer, queer because he was Christian. His whole life confirmed an ancient precept, dressed in modern garb, that it is not necessary to preach using words, especially not loud or angry words; there are subtler ways to get one’s point across. At the same time, his whole life also confirmed that we are who we are (“just look at the surfaces of my paintings and films and me, and there I am”) and that we are not going away.

These seem to me to be some of the deep issues which substantiate and humanize (or ought to) The Warhol Foundation’s commitment to the principle of free expression.


Victor de Villa Lapidis

[1] Farewell, Godspeed: The Greatest Eulogies of Our Time, ed. Cyrus M. Copeland (New York: Harmony Books, 2003), pp. 23-24.

Published in: on December 17, 2010 at 5:03 pm  Comments (2)  
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