Loving Our Enemies, Not Killing Ourselves

On October 15th the Roman Catholic archbishop of Denver, Colorado, Charles Chaput—who (in)famously averred that voting for John Kerry for president in 2004 was mortally sinful, requiring penance—spoke to a diocesan conference in Victoria, British Columbia.  His basic point—that since the 1960’s American youth and popular culture have been noticeably losing control of any coherent “moral vocabulary”—is fair enough.  The same phenomenon has been diagnosed with considerable intellectual subtlety in Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue (1981) and Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind (1987).  (And though both men have long been darlings of the Right, neither was / is “conservative” in any conventional sense: MacIntyre’s proclivities run to Marxism as well as Catholicism; and Bloom was a cold classical rationalist and agnostic, in addition to having been fabulously gay.)

But reading Archbishop Chaput’s remarks I was seized by an intense schizoidal feeling.  The words, by themselves, were fine; their probable intended meaning was dreadful:

The central issue is whether we ourselves really do believe….  If we’re Christians, we’re each called to be teachers and missionaries….  If we’re embarrassed about Church teachings, or if we disagree with them, or if we’ve decided that they’re just too hard to live by, or too hard to explain, then we’ve already defeated ourselves.  We need to really believe what we claim to believe.  We need to stop calling ourselves “Catholic” if we don’t stand with the Church in her teachings—all of them.

Simon.  Simon.  I have somewhat to say to thee … [1]

Perhaps I’m being uncharitable to the archbishop, but I’d like to hazard a guess here.  When Chaput insists on youth needing to not be embarrassed by, and needing to obey, “all” of the Church’s teachings, he ain’t talkin’ about the teaching against usury.  (Which sin might better have been militated against by a vote for John Kerry, than by a vote for George W. Bush.)

Of course, truly we ought so to stand with the Church in her teachings, all of them.  But what does a pious statement such as that mean?  The Church teaches many things, and not all of them with equal authority, or even with equal clarity; and their truth depends on more than the mere fact that certain hierarchs have subscribed or do subscribe to them.

Reading the text of Chaput’s remarks, a passion darker than righteous indignation takes hold of me.  It frankly borders on hatred.  Something I do not think that the comfortably straight world often realizes, is both the extent and the omnipresence of internal division in even self-accepting queer Christians’ minds.  At its dullest such division is like the toothache you can never simply forget or be rid of.  Frequently we are compelled to regard our own natural families, and also our spiritual families—the priests and bishops who minister to us—as the practical enemies of our temporal happiness; and we must be quick to fear the vicious meanings veiled behind their outwardly-ordinary words.  Continuing to demonstrate love to them nevertheless is one of the most important forms of queer Christian witness.

The trick is to reprove Simon as does Our Lord, without hatred.  And this is not easy to do.

To Chaput, With Love

Hating the “Ick” Factor, and the Humility to Let It Go

If you will suffer a personal example: in recent months I have slowly begun coming out to my extended family.  To my immediate family, of course, and to any of my friends worth the name, I have been out for years, and one supposes that casual observers, too, have always perceived what I am, more or less.  With my extended family, however, I have until now remained closeted, principally due to the wishes of one of my parents, whom I know to be ashamed that I turned out gay.  This parental unit’s shame, I hasten to add, is not the fruit of any great intellectual understanding of, or allegiance to, the Church’s traditional teaching, which if it were I could respect.  It is, by the said parental unit’s own, and repeated, admission, entirely the fruit of the “ick factor.”  (Certain uses for certain orifices are too gross to be imagined; the imaginations of the family must be spared.)  (As if I had not already lived 18 very homo-*sexual* years under your own roof, God damn you to hell.)

… thou a man of one mind, my guide, and my familiar … [2]

Hatred, like any unbridled passion, lends itself to overstatement.  The reality, in my case, is that I have ordinarily loving parents who have nurtured and privileged me far above what most parents in the world are able to do for their children.  They never hit me.  They educated me extremely well.  I am not a victim of any wider social persecution.

And yet—recalled by the recent spate of gay teen suicides, including some only perceived to be gay—I cannot stop my ears from hearing,

“EWWW … IT’S [my name]!”

That was my first day of school of the fifth grade, when I walked into homeroom.

Humans characteristically need to be publicly honored more than they need to be fed.  The fundamental political precondition for being able to correct the bigot without hatred, is public honor—such as legal gay marriage, for example, would help confer.

Honor Before Food

But the fundamental spiritual precondition for correcting another without hatred, for doing anything at all without hatred, is, of course, humility.  And humility is not some “flabby, pretending, weak-eyed” assertion of one’s own extreme badness, made while secretly knowing oneself to be good, or at least not so bad as all that.  Humility, rather, is knowing yourself accurately for who and what you are.  Anthony Borisovitch Bloom, archbishop of Sourozh, of blessed memory, and the beloved long-time pastor of the Russian Orthodox diaspora in England, makes this point:

The word “humility” comes from the Latin word humus which means fertile ground.  To me, humility is not what we often make of it: the sheepish way of trying to imagine that we are the worst of all and trying to convince others that our artificial ways of behaving show that we are aware of that.  Humility is the situation of the earth.  The earth is always there, always taken for granted, never remembered, always trodden on by everyone, somewhere we cast and pour all our refuse, all we don’t need.  It’s there, silent and accepting everything and in a miraculous way making out of all the refuse new richness in spite of corruption, transforming corruption itself into a power of life and a new possibility of creativeness, open to the sunshine, open to the rain, ready to receive any seed we sow and capable of bringing thirtyfold, sixtyfold, a hundredfold out of every seed. [3]

Being gay surrounded by anti-gay society is the most marvelous school of humility I have (speaking for myself) yet encountered.  You know yourself to be helpless—helpless to change your desires, on the one hand, and helpless to quit your society, on the other; helpless, in a deeper sense, to do or to be other than as God would have you.  And—O mystery!—you know yourself to be therefore, potentially, just as helpful.


Victor de Villa Lapidis

[1] “And one of the Pharisees desired him to eat with him.  And he went into the house of the Pharisee, and sat down to meat.  And behold a woman that was in the city, a sinner, when she knew that he sat at meat in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster box of ointment; And standing behind at his feet, she began to wash his feet, with tears, and wiped them with the hairs of her head, and kissed his feet, and anointed them with the ointment.  And the Pharisee, who had invited him, seeing it, spoke within himself, saying: This man, if he were a prophet, would know surely who and what manner of woman this is that toucheth him, that she is a sinner.  And Jesus answering, said to him: Simon, I have somewhat to say to thee.  But he said: Master, say it.  A certain creditor had two debtors, the one owed five hundred pence, and the other fifty.  And whereas they had not wherewith to pay, he forgave them both.  Which therefore of the two loveth him most?  Simon answering, said: I suppose that he to whom he forgave most.  And he said to him: Thou hast judged rightly.  And turning to the woman, he said unto Simon: Dost thou see this woman?  I entered into thy house, thou gavest me no water for my feet; but she with tears hath washed my feet, and with her hairs hath wiped them.  Thou gavest me no kiss; but she, since she came in, hath not ceased to kiss my feet.  My head with oil thou didst not anoint; but she with ointment hath anointed my feet.  Wherefore I say to thee: Many sins are forgiven her, because she hath loved much.”  (Luc. vii. 36-47)

[2] “For if my enemy had reviled me, I would verily have borne with it.  And if he that hated me had spoken great things against me, I would perhaps have hidden my self from him.  But thou a man of one mind, my guide, and my familiar, Who didst take sweetmeats together with me: in the house of God we walked with consent.  Let death come upon them, and let them go down alive into hell.”  (Ps. liv. 13-16)

[3] Anthony Bloom, Beginning to Pray (New York: Paulist Press, 1970), p. 35.

Published in: on October 31, 2010 at 5:11 pm  Comments (7)  
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On the Advantages and Disadvantages of Cultural Christianity for Life

Two weeks ago, Toronto’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour (OCA) welcomed a visit by the relics of the holy right-believing prince Vladimir of Kiev, “equal-to-the-apostles and baptist of all the Russias.”  (Announcement here; video, with our beloved and embattled Archbishop Seraphim Storheim, recently accused of sexual indiscretions with boys some twenty-five years ago, here.)  I betook myself to church mid-day that Monday, in a spirit of some gratitude for recent progress toward the completion of my doctoral dissertation.   I kissed the reliquary; I received my prayer cards (two of them) from the hands of a young-ish Ukrainian hieromonk with doubtful English; and went my way once again.

The story on this particular saint is not pretty.  He was a Viking, and did what Vikings did.  He was a fratricide and a polygamist in the old, cruel style.  His mother was regarded in Norse saga as a prophetess; his grandfather twice lay siege to the Christian capital of Constantinople.  Vladimir’s reasons for accepting Christianity, moreover, and in its Greek form, were infamously less than completely pious.  Islam prohibited the consumption of pork and alcohol, a prohibition impossible for Slavs to observe; and the Greeks presented a richer, more powerful potential ally than did the Latin-rite Germans, and (at least in the judgment of Vladimir’s ambassadors) the Greek liturgy was aesthetically more pleasing.

The popular veneration of Vladimir, indeed according him the honorific title isapostolos, distills in a single observance everything legitimately said to be wrong with the Orthodox churches.  There is the mere ritualism; there is the coarse sensuality; the slavish subservience of the clergy to secular power; the rabid nationalism.  No doubt.

And yet (my dear moderns), “There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

So there I was, making full prostrations before the corruptible remains of a tenth-century Viking, covering the bits of glass and precious metals with my kisses, as might any superstitious grandmother … or as I might, in a different but not unrelated context, when nobody was looking, kiss a picture of a deceased and fondly remembered relative; or kiss a picture of my boyfriend.

A bisexual reader of this blog commented to me recently that a secular friend, herself a lesbian, had asked how anyone could belong to a church which at best ignores us, and at worst condemns us.  Perennial question. 

The fundamental answer, or mine at any rate, goes something like this: you don’t abandon your family.  The Church even in the New Testament is imaged as the oikos or the domus of God, that is, as a Graeco-Roman household.  An individual bishop in his diocese may, by analogy, be a tyrannical paterfamilias; but you don’t deny his authority, any more than you would or could deny your own flesh and bones, your very own genetic structure.  I returned to the Russian Orthodox Church at the age of 18 primarily out of a sense of loyalty to the faith of my birth and baptism, and though as time has progressed, and my reasons for adherence to the Christian religion and philosophy have become (I hope) at once more intellectually sophisticated and more charitable, the gut sense of belonging remains.

Throw the Priest in the Volga

Communal bondage to the altar has its advantages.  One of the most important is that when an ecclesial body by accident or design comes to sanctify an entire human society, it has to take human nature as it actually finds human nature, and not as it might desire human nature to be.

There is a charming anecote in the autobiography of the archpriest Abbacum Petrov, the bigoted but revered founder of the schismatic “Old-Believer” sect in Russia.  In September 1647, travelling to the city of Kazan with the newly-appointed governor, a Sheremetev, he refused to hear the confession of the governor’s son, for the latter, a friend of the tsarevitch, had, in a most “effeminate” and “unnatural” manner, shaven his beard.  Whereupon Papa Sheremetev threw the bigoted but revered protopope of Kazan Cathedral into the river Volga.  (According to the same autobiography, they were subsequently reconciled.) [1]

I call this attitude “pro-clerical anti-clericalism.”  Educated in a society long sanctified by Christianity, the Christian layman with an appropriately formed conscience knows when and how to take the clergy seriously, and when and how to take the clergy down a peg—because it’s all in the family.

V.M. Vasnetsov's "Baptism of Vladimir": Or, It's All in the Family

Back to S. Vladimir.

The Primary Chronicle relates a suggestive story about one of Vladimir’s sons, the Russian protomartyr S. Boris.  Assassinated without resistance in 1015, and formally canonized by Pope Benedict XIII in 1724, Boris’ life demonstrates the rapidity with which the highest, evangelical counsels of the Gospel may be adopted, even by the most pagan of social orders.  We read:

After offering this prayer [Matins], he lay down upon his couch.  Then [the assassins] fell upon him like wild beasts about the tent, and pierced him with lances.  They stabbed Boris and his servant, who cast himself upon his body.  For he was beloved of Boris.  He was a servant of Hungarian race, George by name, to whom Boris was greatly attached.  The prince had given him a large gold necklace which he wore while serving him….  But since they could not quickly take the necklace from George’s neck, they cut off his head, and thus obtained it.  For this reason his body was not recognized later among the corpses. [2]

SS. Vladimir Equal-to-the-Apostles; Boris Protomartyr of Russia, his son; and George the Hungarian, co-martyr and beloved: pray to God for us, and deliver your family from the tyranny of the criminal archpriests.


Victor de Villa Lapidis

[1] A French translation of the autobiography is available: La vie de l’archiprêtre Avvakum écrite par lui-même, trans. Pierre Pascal (Paris: Gallimard, 1938).

[2] The Russian Primary Chroncile: Laurentian Text, trans. Samuel Hazzard Cross and Olgerd P. Sherbowitz-Wetzor (Cambridge, Mass.: The Medieval Academy of America, 1953), pp. 126-27, 132-35.

Published in: on October 16, 2010 at 4:01 pm  Comments (5)  
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