An Advent Carol

But the angel of the Lord went down with Azarias and his companions into the furnace: and he drove the flame of the fire out of the furnace, And made the midst of the furnace like the blowing of a wind bringing dew, and the fire touched them not at all, nor troubled them, nor did them any harm.  (Dn. iii. 49-50)

From the flame, for the venerable children, Thou hast brought forth dew, and the sacrifice and water of the just one Thou hast burned: Thou doest all, O Christ, as Thou willest; we extol Thee in all ages.  (Irmos 8, Canon of the Great Pannychida)

From the time I began to know a little something more about the Bible, and about its extensive quotation in the liturgy, both prophetic (scriptural) and liturgical statements concerning the Three Holy Youths—Ananias, Azarias, and Misael—who were committed to the flames and miraculously spared for having refused to worship the idol set up by the Babylonian king Nabuchodonosor, stirred within me a not-quite-forgotten, almost-reptilian historical memory.  Perhaps that’s not too surprising.  To be clear, I do not say that this is what those statements meant, or mean.  I say rather that this is what my life meant, in light of those statements: for the youths’ “faces appeared fairer and fatter than all the children that ate of the king’s meat” (Dn. i. 15), though Azarias and his companions had themselves only pulse to eat; and the king’s servants “ceased not to heat the furnace with brimstone, and tow, and pitch, and dry sticks, And the flame mounted up above the furnace nine and forty cubits” (iii. 46-47).  On the one hand I could easily regard the furnace as a metaphor for my own alien and invasive and inextinguishable desire, as I then felt it to be, for beautiful boys; on the other hand, as the actual historical punishment which used to be meted out to such as myself.  People have done and sometimes still do this sort of thing.  One thinks of the attack in the Bronx just this past October, when the “Latin King Goonies” assaulted three young men, successively sodomizing them with plungers or baseball bats and burning their nipples and penises with cigarettes.  Or one thinks of the current news reports from Africa, where official persecution of homosexuals, and vigilante “justice” against them, seem to be increasing.

But back when I was becoming better acquainted with the Bible and the liturgy, my point of historical reference for the Canticle of Azarias was surely the Roman de la Rose, a long Old-French poem from the thirteenth century—that is, from the same century in which (Western) European secular laws started persecuting sexual minorities much more aggressively. [1]  It contains numerous not-so-veiled threats to burn Fair Welcome, who has been wounded in the side by the God of Love and is enamored of his Rose:

Qui le devroit tout vif larder,

Ne s’en porroit il pas garder

“Even if one had to burn him all alive,

He could not prevent himself from it” [i.e., from obeying the God of Love.]  (ll. 3267-68)

With such intimations of fair faces and the ferocious violence done to them did I hear, and still do hear, the Canticle of Azarias, chanted for the first time in the furnace of Babylon and repeated at every Matins service of the Orthodox churches, and in a great many of their hymns: “All ye works of the Lord, bless the Lord: praise and exalt him above all for ever,” (Dn. iii. 57) etc

This canticle, known to the West as the Benedicite, is moreover the archetypical Advent carol.

N.K. Roerich, "The Fiery Furnace": Keeping Christmas in Russia, 1907

That may be an unexpected assertion, but the church calendar makes the point.  (So does Fr. Stephen Freeman, in “The Fiery Furnace of Christmas.”)  From the beginning of Orthodox Advent on November 15th, a string of commemorations calls attention to the Old Testament’s manifold prophetic prefigurations of God’s coming in the flesh.  Two Marian feasts—her Presentation on November 21st, and her Conception on December 8th or 9th—underscore the decisive importance to the Incarnation of preceding Jewish history.  And down they go to Bethlehem, one after another, the ancient Hebrew saints:

November 19th: Holy Prophet Abdias 

December 1st: Holy Prophet Nahum

December 2nd: Holy Prophet Habacuc

December 3rd: Holy Prophet Sophonias

December 16th: Holy Prophet Aggeus

culminating in

December 17th: Holy Prophet Daniel and the Three Holy Youths, Ananias, Azarias, and Misael

So it is should not startle us to hear the Canticle of Azarias in particular connection with the feast of the Nativity of Our Lord.  To each of the canticle’s benedictions, whenever we hear them—”All ye works of the Lord, bless the Lord”; “O ye angels of the Lord, bless the Lord”; “O ye heavens”; “O ye waters”; “O ye sun and moon”—to each of these we may reply mentally with the formula of the prophet Isaias which is quoted again and again in the order for the Great Compline of the Nativity: jako s nami Boh, “for God is with us.”  With us, in earthly courts from that of the Latin King Goonies to that of King Louis IX of France.  With us, in the furnace of Babylon.  With us, in fair faces. 

Two thoughts fill the mind during the Christmas season: the thought of the innocence of children—of the infant Savior, of the immaculate virgin Mother of God, of the Three Holy Youths, and perhaps of our own childhood, all gauzily wrapped in the swaddling clothes of red cloth, pine, and incense, the whole medieval and childlike dream-world of Old-Testament prophecy; and the twin thought of subsequent experience—of the Passion, the Seven Sorrows, the furnace of Babylon, our own sins.  So we imitate the one, so we learn from the other.

Bless the Lord, for God is with us.


Victor de Villa Lapidis

[1] Jo Ann H. Moran-Cruz, The Roman de la Rose and Thirteenth-Century Prohibitions of Homosexuality,” paper given at “Cultural Frictions,” Georgetown University, Washington, D.C., 27-28 October 1995.

Published in: on December 13, 2010 at 9:37 pm  Comments (4)  
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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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A Queer, Byzantine Appreciation of Bl. John Henry Newman

A fourth-edition copy (1885) of John Henry Newman’s Lectures on the Doctrine of Justification, is perhaps the most precious article now in my possession (though not in my ownership).

On the leaf opposite the appropriately-yellowed title page, in the upper left-hand corner, there can be found the elegant signature of one Walter Pater, fellow of Brasenose College, Oxford, tutor to Oscar Wilde, and sometime owner of the volume.  In the bottom left can be found a dedication, in pencil, by my freshman-year literature professor, who first taught me Wordsworth and Goethe and Pushkin.

Since first learning of John Henry Cardinal Newman’s life and example, way back when freshman year, I have had a great reverence for the man, including physical reverence.  There is a stained-glass window of Newman at his desk in Littlemore, in the rear of Georgetown’s college chapel; I made a habit of kissing it as I entered and exited, as I might an icon.  I remember one morning very distinctly when I went to visit him in his window: I was in the midst of an emotionally immature, but utterly sincere, attachment to another boy; and learning that Newman’s last will and testament had been to be buried in the same grave with the “friend of his heart,” Fr. Ambrose St.-John, some sense of compulsion drove me to go say thank-you.

So it is with gladness that I hear tell of the papal beatification in Birmingham today.

I would like to make two observations, one about the cast of Newman’s mind, and one about his sexuality.

Newman, like myself in some way, was personally a scholastic, in the broadest sense—a schoolman, a man of reason, governed in his thinking and writing by scholarly criteria of evidence and proof and probability.  But what is interesting to me, both from an Eastern Orthodox and from an ordinary psychological point of view, is that Newman exercised his refined personal scholasticism on, and in creative tension with, commitments of a very different order.   He was not, after all, especially moved by scholastic theology, that is, the elaboration of theological propositions (all be they divinely revealed) using academic-philosophical means.  Rather he cared primarily for patristic theology—theology as it had been practiced before the rise of the modern (medieval) university, when one’s right to speak of divine things was still supposed to be earned in the sweat of much (monastic) ascesis, and when philosophy was still supposed to embrace a whole way of life.  Augustine, so to speak, and not Aquinas, converted Newman.  This fact should make him, and the patristically-minded pope now beatifying him, central figures in contemporary Catholic-Orthodox ecumenism.  There is much in Newman for the Orthodox to appreciate.

Cor ad cor loquitur

I will cite one example of what I mean.  In his Grammar of Assent, Newman dilates on what he terms the “illative sense,” which he closely identifies with phronesis, the “prudence” or “practical wisdom” of ancient Greek philosophy.  The illative sense, for Newman, is something more than abstract ratiocination.  Not for nothing did he choose a quotation from S. Ambrose of Milan for the book’s dedication: Non in dialectica complacuit Deo salvum facere populum suum; “It did not please God to save his people through logic.”  Rather, the illative sense is above all concerned with judgment “in concrete matters,” [1]—it is a sense for real life, for vitality (the same sense so near and dear to Russian religious thought), and hence its articulation inevitably entails some awareness of our subjectivity.  Translating and transforming pagan Greek philosophical terms into Christian theological ones, we might indeed draw an analogy between classical phronesis, Newman’s illative sense, and “the eye of the heart” of the Eastern fathers—the latter being that perceptive faculty which belongs to our most essential nature as persons, created in the image and likeness of God.

Newman, distinguishing our human nature, did not choose to emphasize our reason, or in patristic language, “the eye of the mind.”  Now that humanity’s exclusive claim to rationality seems to be breaking down, this seems prescient.   He emphasized instead our moral freedom, that is, our educability and perfectibility, as creatures in the image and likeness of the Creator:   

What is the peculiarity of our nature, in contrast with the inferior animals around us?  It is that, though man cannot change what he is born with, he is a being of progress with relation to his perfection and characteristic good….  Nor is this progress mechanical, nor is it of necessity; it is committed to the personal efforts of each individual of the species; each of us has the prerogative of completing his inchoate and rudimental nature, and of developing his own perfection out of the living elements with which his mind began to be.  It is his gift to be the creator of his own sufficiency; and to be emphatically self-made. [2]

Compare, Russianly, the thought of Fr. Sergius Bulgakov:

The freedom that creation experiences is not proper to God, for He is above freedom.  God’s suprafreedom, which is limited by no given and which is perfectly adequate to His nature, can signify in Him only the character of His self-positing by an absolute act.  Creaturely freedom is precisely incapable of this absoluteness of self-positing.  However, the image of God is preserved in creaturely freedom by the fact that this freedom is nevertheless a self-positing, though not an absolute one, and human life is marked by continuous personal self-creation.  The image of God is therefore manifested, first of all, in the person, which is the principle of creativity and freedom.  However, because this creativity is not absolute but presupposes a given in human nature, the image of God in man is a task requiring realization…. [3]

These two thoughts, Newman’s and Bulgakov’s, seem to me to be quite similar.  Both are obviously endebted to their time and place, and their language has obvious limitations.  But both do seem to be attempting to give coherent voice to a permanent tendency in Christian theology and philosophy, that tendency which rightly privileges the religion of the heart as more complete and comprehensive, than the religion of the mind (even as it highly values and employs the religion of the mind).   One recalls Newman’s motto: Cor ad cor loquitur; “Heart speaks to heart.”

Lest the modern historical context seem too much for conservative skeptics of subjectivity, compare, patristically, S. Gregory of Nyssa:

But having come to the very top of the mountain, [Moses], like a good sculptor who has fashioned well the whole statue of his own life, did not simply bring his creation to an end but he placed the finishing touch on his work. [4]

Newman, Bulgakov, Nyssa.   All three insist that we do have something to contribute, freely and concretely, that is, properly personally, to our own religious life.

Newman’s Sexuality

Much is currently being made of Newman’s probable homosexual orientation.  Peter Tatchell, deserving of all praise for submitting to the blows of neo-Nazis at Moscow’s Pride, has nevertheless been making himself generally obnoxious; the Hungarian-born atheist Frank Furedi “gets” Newman much better.  A traditionalist Anglo-Catholic blog out of Oxford makes the entirely legitimate point, that we cannot know for sure what Newman’s orientation was; but both by its exaggerated rhetoric, and by its seeming uncomfortableness with the very idea that a saint might have been “that way,” the blog undermines its own moral credibility.

One comment about this.  It is a pious tradition, and a venerable one, for Christians to adopt patrons on the narrowest of pretexts.  The Bible does not say that Mary Magdalene, for example, was a prostitute—and yet she is patron saint to prostitutes.   Nicholas of Myra was not a sailor—and there he is, patron saint to sailors (in addition to children).  Some saints may never have existed historically at all—George, for example, patron to soldiers, or Christopher, patron to travelers (Christopher being spectacularly represented in Eastern iconography, with the head of a dog).

Christians have always kept such pious traditions.  I like to think that queer Christians, who object in conscience to their Church’s teaching, will take Newman, a great apologist for the authority of conscience, and one (in?)famously described in his day as having possessed “a woman’s soul in a man’s body,” as one of their heavenly patrons.  A Russian might call him porjadočnij—fair and decent, with a strong connotation of meek and gentle.

Blessed cardinal-deacon, pray to God for us.


Victor de Villa Lapidis  

[1] John Henry Newman, An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent (London: Burns, Oates & Co., 1870), p. 346.

[2] Newman, Grammar, pp. 341-42.

[3] Sergius Bulgakov, The Bride of the Lamb, trans. Boris Jakim (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 2002), p. 135.

[4] Gregory of Nyssa: The Life of Moses, trans. Abraham J. Malherbe and Everett Ferguson (New York: Paulist Press, 1978), p. 134.

Published in: on September 19, 2010 at 9:54 pm  Comments (45)  
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Disagreement Between Friends, II

Part 2: The Priority of Scripture

But since, in our weakness, we cannot yet follow the path of the perfect, let us talk of what edifies, and speak of such things with reference to the words of the fathers, without undertaking to interpret the scriptures; for this latter is fraught with dangers for the ignorant.  The scriptures are written in the language of the spirit, and men of the flesh cannot understand spiritual things.  It is best to use the words of the fathers in our conversations; then we shall find the profit they contain. [1]

So say SS. Barsanuphius and John.  I quote them by way of cautionary preface. For a Roman Catholic reader of this blog (a convert from Protestantism) has asked me to speak about holy scripture, as it relates to the queer question.  I expect his query stems partly from a sort of post-modern Western curiosity about Eastern attitudes to sacred text and authority, which are rumored to be different.  The Orthodox accept a third and occasionally a fourth book of Machabees, as well as the Prayer of Manasses and the 151st Psalm, as canonical; meanwhile the Apocalypse of S. John, which is visually much in evidence in an Eastern church’s iconographic program, is never in fact read in church aloud.  Certain of the Eastern fathers caution laymen against attempting to interpret any scripture at all.

The second, and probably larger reason for my inquirer’s curiosity, is the obvious one: submitting to scripture’s authority, it is widely alleged, precludes participating in or condoning homosexual relations (or any other sort of non-procreative sexual behavior).  The traditionalist Orthodox Christian Information Center, for example, lumps its discussion of homosexuality into its discussion of abortion, euthanasia, and genetic cloning, and to do so it repeats the usual scriptural proof-texts—the destruction of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen. xviii and xix); the Levitical prohibition of homosexual relations as an “abomination” (Lev. xviii and xx); and the Pauline condemnations of homosexuality (Rom. i and I Cor. vi).  A traditionalist Catholic blog does the same, and more, raising up a specter of “homosexual totalitarianism” which, if unchecked, will drive the Church “underground.”

The Church in modern history has, however, already weathered any number of philosophical and scientific challenges to its theology, and notably to its theology of creation.  Evolution by natural selection, also once regarded as a theory precluded by scriptural authority, is no longer generally controversial—such that Patriarch Bartholomew, a respected environmentalist, may simply absorb Darwin into traditional Christian cosmology: “The dynamics of evolution are henceforth linked with death—entropy, monstrosity, disintegration….  Of course the laws of nature, which make salvation history possible, witness to the cosmic covenant concluded between God and the world after the flood.” [2]

That the ecumenical patriarch regards the specific wastefulness of the evolutionary process as something continuous with human sin, is not the immediate point.  Rather, he still perceives a natural end to that process cooperative with the divine will; and he is able to take the new evolutionary account of biological reality for granted, without any particular comment.

Why, then, such frequent ferocity of opposition to accepting homosexuals?

Disagreement Between Friends

In Part 1 of this series, “The Necessity of Dogma,” I suggested that traditional dogmatic theology is neither merely optional (contra Christianity’s “cultured despisers”); nor is it necessarily incompatible with homosexual love (contra the ecclesiastical hierarchy).  I began with a discussion of the significance of dogma because it is dogma primarily which imparts to the Church its visible unity: a symbolon, the symbol of the faith “unites.”  We may disagree about most other things (including even what constitutes the complete canon of holy scriptures), yet through such disagreements we are able to say that we are still one Church, because we confess the same faith—because we answer the question “But whom do you say that I am?” (Mc. viii. 29) with the same formulas.

I now turn to consider the priority of scripture.  I hasten to add that I am not any kind of biblical scholar.  Still less do I have the spiritual gifts which SS. Barsanuphius and John (perhaps quite rightly) consider as the pre-requisites of biblical exegesis.  This essay is offered therefore in a spirit of humble uncertainty; and I am eager for those who know more than I do, to contribute their knowledge and sources.

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Published in: on September 3, 2010 at 10:02 pm  Comments (2)  
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Format Change

Due to a few really, really, really long nested discussions on a few of the posts (Yay!) we’ve decided to turn nesting off.  This means all comments will be displayed across the entire width of the text-space.  Yay!  It also means it may be slightly harder to figure out which comment is directed at what.  Boo!

For anyone who may be unfamiliar with how to deal with this sort of dilemma, I suggest either posting responses @ specific people, so we know who’s talking to whom, or @ the number of the comment you’re responding to.  Quoting other people’s comments is also helpful.

Thanks, and sorry for any disorientation.

-Blogmaster, Righteous Pagan

Published in: on August 25, 2010 at 4:58 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Homodoxy Loves Mail

An acquaintance of mine, an English Catholic lady charged with the weighty task of teaching ethics and philosophy of religion to eighteen-year-olds, has recently written to me, and generously given permission for some of her current thinking about art, education, and devotion, to be shared.

Our initial topic of conversation was Tom Ford’s 2009 gay-themed film, A Single Man.  Having pontificated against this film for its dramatic demerits (bad script, flashy cinematography), I was called out by my correspondent: 

As to A Single Man, … I was taken by it because it stirred in me some sense of how the “homosexuality problem” (as framed by Christians of all kinds) is simply too profound and [some sense of how it has] too much to do with being a human being, to simplify or reduce in the way it commonly is in, say, conservative blogs and such….  And I suppose that side of it was lost on you, since you have twenty-five years of first-hand experience of it … !  It was rather the same kind of feeling I had while reading The Persian Boy by Mary Renault.  It has become obvious to me over the years that homosexuality is not something that need only be thought about by homosexuals.  Quite the contrary.  Taking homosexuality seriously means significantly broadening one’s understanding of one’s own sexuality, and human sexuality altogether, which is challenging.  And further—very importantly—if we are called to serve the marginalized and struggle for their voice to be heard, we are contravening the gospel if we do not shake our fists for homosexuals in the church, Catholic and Orthodox.  This responsibility weighs heavily on me, since if I come to the conclusion—as I think I have, despite my occasional doubts—that homosexuality is not a tendency to intrinsic moral evil, one immediately assumes a painfully heavy responsibility not to cooperate in their suppression.  It was, as you allude to, the beauty of the portrayal of homosexual love in A Single Man (just as in Mary Renault) which touched me and renewed my perennial sense that the heterosexual Catholic is just as responsible for living with the reality of homosexuality as any homosexual.

Here she is now, on teaching matters of controversy from within a Christian perspective … :

Sexual ethics has occupied my mind particularly because I have to teach it and, knowing I am Catholic, my students ask me about it endlessly.  I am proud to stand for most of the traditional Christian views about sex and I can defend the official view when asked, but when they want to know my own personal views, I find that my strong objections to pornography, prostitution, consumerization and commercialization of sex, the reductionistic attitude to the female body, etc., are not matched by my thoughts about homosexuality and birth control—though I am more sympathetic to the birth control prohibition than most Catholics I know.  I am inclined to conservatism out of a profound suspicion of the current generation’s pathological attitude to sexuality, and yet I can’t help finding that much of what is offered by the church is pathological in its own way.

… and on devotion to the Church:

I feel in a strange way as though I have never been more serious about God, never more reliant on prayer, and yet I find certain aspects of the church as problematic as ever.  The more I read the gospels the more I shudder at the Pharisaism of the hierarchy.  And yet I find I cannot survive without regular Mass, regular prayer, and I feel ever more pressed by the person of Jesus.


Victor de Villa Lapidis

Published in: on August 25, 2010 at 11:05 am  Comments (2)  

Other Gay Conservative Groups? Really?


I got linked to GayPatriot today, and it was a bit of a surreal experience: all sorts of statements supporting homosexuals, but advancing the conservative agenda – even an alternative to Pride called Homocon.  Now, when we say in our title that our blog is conservative, we mean, largely, religiously conservative.  Victor is politically to the right, and Eiluned is to the left, but both agree on more than they disagree.

I, the atheist-agnostic-white-straight-male, am quite fiscally and socially liberal and a lot of what I read on GayPatriot (really, Patriot? Because only conservatives are patriotic?  But I digress…) I found horrifying, wrong-headed, and at times, mildly offensive.  Ann Coulter, one of the most loathsome writers I’ve ever read, is going to SPEAK at HOMOCON!  Admittedly, she’s taking a beating for it, but still: what is happening to the world?

Gay Activist? Maybe not, but still...

But you know what my overall response is?

This is awesome.

It’s about time the Liberals lost their stranglehold on gay rights, and gay conservative organizations became prominent. It’s an indication that homosexuality and homosexual acts,  only decriminalized in Canada in 1969, finally decriminalized by the US Supreme Court in 2003, and still punishable by death in many countries (Saudi Arabia, Sudan, UAE, to name a few) are finally being accepted even by mainstream Republicans.  Is this bad for the Democrats?  Yes; it robs them of a useful demographic.  Is it bad, potentially, for the cause of gay marriage?  Probably, as these gay Republicans are arguing more for civil union than marriage.  Is it bad for liberalism as a movement? As it steals liberalism’s issues, it may drive progressives to be more and more extreme; and that’s a good thing.  Progress must always push the envelope, and conservatives must resist the change.

There is nothing inherently wrong with either conservatism or liberalism.  They are both vital drives: one is the desire to try new things and explore, and the other is the fear of what damage such exploration might inflict; the need to hold onto what we have already accomplished vs the imperative to change.  Both are valid.  It’s a dialectic… the two forces must clash, and a synthesis forms from the struggle.  Gay Republicans are part of that synthesis, and are a sign that times are changing. I may be wrong, but I doubt Anne Coulter would have spoken at a gay rally fifteen years ago, or even ten, or five.  Things are improving, and this shift on the part of the right is a perfect example.  Eventually, gay rights will have the same status as feminism… still an important struggle, still a real concern, still laughed at and ignored by those who are uninterested, but at least the largest part of the work will be done.

-Your Blogmaster, the Righteous Pagan

Published in: on August 21, 2010 at 1:25 am  Comments (7)  
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Disagreement Between Friends, I

An Orthodox reader of this blog has asked me about the “problem” of tradition, as it pertains to the queer question.  How do I reconcile my contention that homosexual unions may be ethical and holy, with the Tradition and traditions of the Church, seemingly so hostile?  This “problematization” of tradition arises in other contexts, too: in plans for reunion with the Oriental (Monophysitic) Orthodox churches, stalled over the thorny problem that their saints are our heretics, and our saints their heretics; likewise in dialogue with the Roman church, which recognizes, and is not about to stop recognizing, a full fourteen additional post-Schism councils, as ecumenical in status.  What, then, is to be done?

One approach has been for the “conservative” and “liberal” parties in the Church to throw caution to the winds, and to assert themselves in despite both of each other and of whatever elements within the Tradition (in the broadest sense) which might challenge them.  That seems to be pretty much what is now going on in the Anglican Communion; and the best conciliating efforts of Rowan Williams as archbishop of Canterbury aside, the Communion’s dissolution is to be expected.  At one extreme, the Anglican bishop of Karamoja in Uganda supports the death penalty bill for homosexuals.  At the other, the dean of the Anglican seminary in Cambridge, Mass., calls abortion a “blessing” and an “holy work.”  Violence proliferates.

Some of that violence is committed in the context of the Church’s pastoral and penitential disciplines.  I myself have, on more than one occasion, been threatened by an (Orthodox) priest with refusal of communion—for no other reason than that I happen both to be openly gay and also happen to disagree with a traditional but non-infallible moral teaching of the Church.  I expect that this may happen many times in my life.  Fr. Hopko says that a person in my condition may not receive the sacraments; Metropolitan Jonas (Paffhausen), archbishop of Washington, DC, and primate of the Orthodox Church in America, the night of his election to the primacy declared that if an ecclesial body “endorses gay marriage” (amongst other controversial political questions), it “abandon[s] … Jesus Christ and the Gospel.”

Never mind that the Gospel says not one word about gay marriage: many ordinarily faithful people are, almost without discussion, to be treated in the same way as would heretics and unbelievers.

And yet, Christ calls us “friends” (Jo. xv. 15).   And “by this shall all men know that you are my disciples, if you have love one for another” (Jo. xiii. 35).

One of the most politically resonant icons in the Church’s iconography is that of SS. Peter and Paul embracing.  They may have disagreed about important doctrinal questions, as the apostles and fathers generally have disagreed: “And some coming down from Judea, taught the brethren: That except you be circumcised after the manner of Moses, you cannot be saved.  And when Paul and Barnabas had no small contest with them, they determined that Paul and Barnabas, and certain others of the other side, should go up to the apostles and priests to Jerusalem about this question” (Act. xv. 1-2).  Therefore the apostles are depicted as friends.

Disagreement Between Friends

If we (Orthodox and Roman Catholics) are to avoid some of the snares into which the Anglican Communion has fallen, we must take care to imitate Peter and Paul, preserving our unity where the dogmas of the Church are concerned, but permitting a legitimate diversity of theological opinion elsewhere.  We must take care to remember that we are friends.

This essay will constitute the first part of a series, “Disagreement Between Friends,” proposing some initial ideas for how to manage the problematization of tradition and, no less important, how to continue living in catholic love and reconciliation.

Part I: The Necessity of Dogma

When reasonable people call the Church “dogmatic,” they are not, usually, being complimentary.  As the Slovak church historian and Orthodox convert Jaroslav Pelikan noted shortly before his death in an NPR segment “The Need for Creeds,” this perception, right or wrong, can pose a tremendous obstacle to the Church’s evangelism.  Queers especially are often suspicious (and understandably so) of the Church’s dogmatic system.  I can well remember my feeing, just for example, on a certain winter night some years ago, listening to an outwardly very pious layman—oblivious of his audience, and alas only half in jest—as he expressed his wish he had a faggot to burn.  That is the sort of obviously negative encounter which does lead reasonable people to hold a negative assessment of dogma.  A fine example occurred recently in Andy Sullivan’s exchange with Ross Douthat about Judge Walker’s ruling on Proposition 8 in California:

[Ross] is not a homophobe as I can personally attest.  But if he cannot offer something for this part of our society except a sad lament that they are forever uniquely excluded, by their nature, from being a “microcosm of civilization” [and thus from participating in the institution of marriage], then this is not a serious contribution to the question at hand.  It is merely a restatement of abstract dogma….

When dogmas are reduced to the level of mere abstractions, they die, and those who cling to them are justly censured for their “dogmatism.”  On the other hand, as V.S. Soloviev wrote in an essay on “The Significance of Dogma”:

When Christian dogmas were taking shape at the general church councils, for the true representatives of the church they were neither that mind-game by which the last Byzantines were carried away nor that alien and forgotten word, which they pronounce for present-day hearing.  True dogma is the word of the church responding to the word of God when such a response is required by course of history and the development of religious consciousness. [1]

Dogma correctly understood is not abstract and dead, but historical and living.

Just as a philosopher might proceed by asking what must be true of the mind such that we are able to interpret the realities we experience, in the same way a theologian proceeds by asking what must be true of God (dogmatically speaking) such that we are able to interpret our experience of eternal salvation.

So it is that what the Church claims to teach dogmatically, infallibly, turns out to be relatively little.  There are the declarative, frequently paradoxical theses of the Nicene-Constantinopolitan creed, in the East, and those of the Apostles’ and Athanasian creeds, in the West, mostly having to do with the relations which subsist between the three persons of the Holy Trinity.  In the East in the eighth century, the appropriateness of venerating icons was made into dogma; so too, in the West, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, were the Marian doctrines of the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption.   But to venture much beyond these few items with any certainty one would be hard-pressed.  Good reason for such dogmatic reticence was given first of all by S. Vincent of Lérins: “… all possible care must be taken, that we hold that faith which has been believed everywhere, always, by all.  For that is truly and in the strictest sense ‘Catholic,’ which, as the name itself and the reason of the thing declare, comprehends all universality.” [2]

The theological opinions which can meet this test are not numerous.  The theological opinions which, in course of time, have indeed met this test, then act as a groundwork on the basis of which all further inquiry is made possible.  They are, in other words, the indispensible core.  As the Apostle reasons: “For if the dead rise not again, neither is Christ risen again.  And if Christ be not risen again, your faith is vain, and you are yet in your sins” (I Cor. xv. 16-17).  For such reason is belief in the resurrection, as set forth in the Creed, properly called “dogmatic.”

Granted that, I cannot conceive how homosexual love or unions do any injury to dogmatic theology; nor can I conceive why the queer community need be suspicious of dogmatic theology.

On the contrary, the most striking political consequence of dogma is to set limits to all earthly authority.  An authentic dogmatism is thus also the aboriginal classical form of liberalism.  The Christian does not deny the dogmatic definitions of faith, even on pain of death; the sovereign conscience of the individual martyr in the arena is to be obeyed before corporation, class, or committee of public safety, is to be obeyed.  The Byzantine basileus or Russian tsar might aspire to reign together with Christ, but could never replace Christ, and buried in the recesses of the Church’s pre-imperial memory lies Tertullian’s old dictum about the blood of the martyrs.  As Jaroslav Pelikan states bluntly on the first page of the first volume of The Christian Tradition, “polity transcends organization because of the way the church defines itself and its structure in its dogma.” [3]

This is a justification of dogma, at once as deeply conservative as the early African church in which the likes of Tertullian could flourish, which can at the same time be embraced by the queer community, and likewise by any persecuted or marginalized group suffering at the hands of Pharisees and Caesars.  I have written about Orthodox seminarian Eric Iliff here, but the names and stories are without end.  The martyrial witness of the Church’s queers does not threaten the Church’s dogmatic system; it helps, like all martyrial witness, to support and explain it.


Victor de Villa Lapidis

[1] Politics, Law, Morality: Essays by V.S. Soloviev, trans. Vladimir Wozniuk (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000), pp. 108-09.


[2] Commonitory ii. 6.

[3] Jaroslav Pelikan, The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (100-600) (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1971), p. 1.

Published in: on August 20, 2010 at 7:45 pm  Comments (8)  
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Of Note

Colm Tóibín, a cradle Catholic who considered a vocation to the priesthood during his adolescence, has published a thoughtful review of Angelo Quattrocchi’s new book, The Pope Is Not Gay, in the current issue of The London Review of Books.  In it he treats of those twin sociological mysteries, why the Vatican has so poorly handled the recent sexual abuse scandals in America, Ireland, and Germany, and why so many repressed gay men continue even today to adopt religious vocations.


The problem is that, after all that has been revealed, many of us who were brought up in the Church now know that we once listened to sermons about how to conduct our lives from men who were child molesters. And that senior members of the Church hierarchy protected these men, believing that the reputation of the Church was more important than the safety of children, and that Church law was superior to civil law. When they were found out, their sorrow was not fully credible. Thus, when we think of the Catholic Church, we think of secrecy, half-hearted apology, studied concealment.

This makes it difficult for Ratzinger, who is probably the most intelligent and articulate pope for many generations, to be heard properly when he speaks about matters of faith and morals. He wishes to make it clear, from a position that is starkly coherent, that moral values are not relative values, but absolute ones, that we must follow God’s will, and that the Catholic Church is in a unique position to tell us in some detail what this entails. However, rather than listening to this message or bowing our heads as he offers us his blessing, because of what has happened, because of a new suspicion which even the most reverent feel about the clergy, we will find ourselves examining Ratzinger’s clothes and his accessories, his gestures, and checking behind him for a glimpse of the gorgeous Georg with whom he spends so much of his day.


Victor de Villa Lapidis

Published in: on August 14, 2010 at 6:49 pm  Leave a Comment  
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