Monthly Archives: August 2011

“But my dear Sebastian, you can’t seriously believe it all.”
“Can’t I?”
“I mean about Christmas and the star and the three kings and the ox and the ass.”
“Oh yes. I believe that. It’s a lovely idea.”
“But you can’t believe things because they’re a lovely idea.”
“But I do. That’s how I believe.”1

One of my favorite things about being a Christian is the fact that there’s no such thing as “too good to be true.” The phrase is a contradiction: being Christian means knowing that the good and the true are the same. The truer a thing is, the more good it is, and vice versa.

I know the Brideshead quotation sounds like pure naïveté. In one sense it is. Anybody who lives in the world knows that true things, facts, are very often not good and not beautiful. You just have to read the news. Forget that, you just have to walk down the street: every time I walk out of the Y, the same junkies are sitting on the curb, too drugged out even to know how miserable they are.2

Forget even walking down the street, you just have to grow up in the 21st century, in your own family. I don’t care how wonderful your family is; whenever you get any group of people together there will be bitterness, misunderstanding, and even cruelty. That’s not what people are at heart, but it’s what sin does to the world.

Christianity doesn’t deny any of those things. On the contrary, I don’t know of any system of thought that takes suffering more seriously: even after Jesus rose from the dead in glory, there were still nail wounds in his hands.

Christianity doesn’t even say, “Yes, the world’s dreadful but if you just wait long enough you’ll die and then you’ll get to be happy!” To be Christian isn’t to ignore suffering or to wait for it to be over, but to “accept and use suffering as Christ did: that is, as a creative, redemptive act.”3 To make suffering the tool of love.

Christianity says this: the best things are also the truest things, and the most beautiful. Beautiful things are beautiful because they are true. That’s what beauty is: it is what truth does to us. We are built to be drawn to truth, to love it like a mole loves dirt, like meat loves salt.4

Being a Christian means never having to decide between what’s true and what you love. It’s just that figuring out what you love, and what love is, takes time, and learning how to strip away everything else.

1 From Brideshead Revisited.
2 Okay, so I’m trying to make the place I live sound a little more badass than it is. Mainly it’s just Main Street that’s like that.
3 Archbishop Chaput’s Render Unto Caesar, p. 47.
4 I forget whether the meat-and-salt thing is from King Lear or Cap-o’-Rushes, maybe both. But about that: I was at the beach recently with my older sister. Her kids found these strange little crab-things that live just under the surface, where the waves meet the beach. When you dig them up, they burrow back into the sand so quickly it’s like they’re moving through melted butter. My sister said, It’s like that story about the Zen disciple who wanted to see God: that’s how they must feel, they want to get into that sand so bad. I have a cool sister.

I love being alone, and I hate it. Am I a natural introvert, or a thwarted extrovert?

I spent all Sunday by myself. Some people would envy the pants off me for that — I’m thinking again of my married siblings. I know they love their kids and love spending time with them, but I know from my years as a teacher that being surrounded, all day long, by little people who need things, makes you crazy.

I enjoyed my day. I coded, watched a bit of Netflix, wrote, did laundry, accidentally deleted my blog, resurrected it again, spent some time tweaking it. Is it weird that I enjoyed a day like that? Is it normal? Is there anything called normal? Is it selfish or pathological or just okay?

Sometimes I feel guilty for spending too much time alone, like I’m feeding a tendency in myself that I should be trying to starve. But I played poker on Friday, and went out with friends for drinks and a movie on Sunday, so I rewarded myself with a day of total hermitage.

If I ever spend a whole weekend alone, it’s too much, and I get depressed. But even then, I can’t tell whether I feel crappy because I want people around me, or because I feel like I ought to want them.

I come by it honestly, by the way. My mother’s never been comfortable in social situations, and as for my father, he’s been known to leave by the back window — freaking literally — when company is coming. And I can dig that.

Ever seen Punch Drunk Love? It’s one of my favorite movies. Adam Sandler plays his usual emotionally-stunted, self-absorbed man-child, but with a tragic accent: he’s alone, miserable, has no idea how to act around people but no idea how to be by himself either.

Maybe my favorite line is this: “I don’t know if there’s anything wrong, because I don’t know how other people are.”

Yeah, I dig that too. My older sister once knew a girl with severe Asperger’s, who went around wearing strange, medieval-looking clothes and bringing people cookies in a basket. My sister says: There’s someone who got the chance to build herself from the ground up, without wondering whether her life fit anybody else’s patterns.

Which is a good thing, right? But it’s a fine line. Americans make a mantra out of self-determination; Caring What Other People Think is one of the few universally-recognized sins of the 21st century. But it can go too far, no? If I let my idiosyncracies run wild, I think I’d barely even be human. I’d go live in a cave somewhere.

As long as the cave had wifi and coffee and cigarettes.

Just in case anyone is in the habit of frantically refreshing my blog, maybe you noticed that the site went down for a while. This had nothing to do with Hurricane Irene, which in my area has been something of a disappointment.

It had everything to do, on the other hand, with me not paying close enough attention to which directory I was in before issuing a pretty little “rm -R *” command to my server. I love linux: it doesn’t baby you like Windows does. Which means, if you ask it to delete everything, it will assume you know what you are talking about. Yes sir! No questions asked!

Just because I’m a geek doesn’t mean I’m not incredibly dumb sometimes. So you’re looking at an old version of the site, restored from the backup that at least I was smart enough to keep around. All the posts are intact (phew!), but some of the trappings aren’t, for now, and some other things might look weird. Geez. Time to go survey the damages caused by my itchy keyboard finger.

One of the dangers of a life like mine — being single, living alone, working a job that mainly involves staring at glowing rectangles all day — is that your faults tend to get hidden from you.

When I was a teacher, It was impossible to avoid my faults: how little it takes to make me lose patience, how I have it in me to be casually cruel even to a sixth-grader if I’m short on sleep, how prone I am to sulking when my free time gets hijacked.

Living with the community in Peru, even for just a few months, was the same. I remember doing chores with Brother Pedro one day, sweeping the floors but avoiding his eyes because just looking at him made me furious; muttering Hail Marys under my breath like they were curses, because it was either pray for his wretched, pedantic soul or beat him to death with the broom. All this because — I honestly can’t remember; probably something about the tone of voice he kept using, or this way he had of sniffing and lifting an eyebrow.1

It’s lucky I come from a big family, and that nearly everyone in my family has a big family. I’m surrounded by role models.

Caleb works overtime every week, sometimes six or seven days in a row, just to make ends meet, and all he wants to do with his time off is give that time away to his family. Caleb comes particularly to mind because I’m housesitting for him this weekend, and noticing how all I can think of is how far of a drive it is from my place to his, and how his stupid dog won’t quit licking me.

But it’s not just Caleb. I could say the same about my other married brothers and sisters. Sacrifice isn’t just something they do from time to time, when they quit watching TV and get around to it. It’s how they live.

People keep telling me how wonderful I am for, well, just not having sex with anybody. And believe me, I snap up those compliments like my brother’s stupid dog snaps up doggie treats.2 And frankly, yes, it’s hard work remaining chaste and celibate.3 It’s difficult, and it causes me pain.

But I have less and less patience with this question: “How can the Church require homosexuals to be celibate? How can she impose such a heavy cross?”

Why do people think that living a good life is supposed to be easy? Readers, whoever you are — gay, straight, married, single, relatively healthy or inflicted with any one of a billion possible debilitating pathologies — you will be asked to carry a cross. It’s going to be hard, and it’s not going to be fair.

This is a world where evil is real, and where the only real antidote is love — not medicine, not political change, not advanced anti-suffering technology, but love. And love always costs.

Suffering and self-denial aren’t extraordinary; they’re par for the course. What did you expect?

1 Yep, I was an expert on the shades of emotional inflection in a language I could barely even speak and a culture I knew nothing about.
2 And rawhide strips, and shoes, and newspapers, and toys, and the cat’s food (but not her own), and bugs, and cigarette butts…I think I’ve lost sight of my original simile.
3 Not a redundancy. Celibacy means refraining from sexual activity. Chastity means integrating your sexuality with the rest of your personality, in a way that’s appropriate to your station in life. The former is required of some people; the latter is required of everybody.

I tried for over an hour to write this post about what happened today at the gym. It was about how, even though I found out my gym buddy Eddy is gay, and found this out by him hitting on me, and had to tell him that yes, I’m (1) gay, but also (2) Catholic and therefore (3) celibate, I feel nothing but good and satisfied and proud of myself.

Well, I do feel good and satisfied and proud of myself. I don’t feel regret. Starting something with him isn’t something I could have done. Eddy’s got a gentle smile and is built like a tank besides, and did I mention I have sort of a thing for Latinos? But in the end there’s only one man worth starting over for, worth turning your life completely upside down, and that man’s a Jew, not a Puerto Rican.

All the good ones are gay. Ladies? Amirite?1

I actually didn’t notice, until I emailed my friend D. about it, that I was kind of upset. I noticed that I was using more exclamation points than usual, and asking more questions, in rapid-fire: what do I do now? Do I start steering clear of the steam room? Change my gym schedule so we don’t run into each other? Can we still be friends? Should I have been more clear?

But I was clear. I told him I’m celibate; that I knew I couldn’t be both gay and Catholic; that I chose the one that I knew was more important. He apologized, said he felt like he was being a mala influencia, and I told him No te preocupes, I understand, I would’ve done the same thing.

It’s not that I’ve ever thought about him, much, outside of when we happen to cross paths. It’s not that we’re a match in any way, if being a “match” romantically with another man were even possible. It’s — heck, it’s not even that I’ve never been hit on by a man before. Just not by anybody I actually knew or liked.

Just as well I couldn’t patch together a glib post about how it’s all fine. Sometimes it ain’t fine. It’s not terrible, either, just not fine. Así es.

Just as well, too, that I’ve got Adoration tomorrow morning. It’s not like Jesus isn’t used to me complaining.

1 I have never actually typed this word before. Looks a bit like one of those Old Testament peoples: And the Israelites cut down the Amirites by the edge of the sword. And also their King, Og, who smelled of spoiled meat.

“God really does give you your heart’s desire,” Mother Agnes was saying, Madre Inez I mean. She was the last person you would have expected to end up in Puerto Maldonado, one of the poorer sections of Peru, surrounded by jungle on every side. Twenty hours by bus from Cuzco and most of those on dirt roads, jungle on every side. I think she grew up on a farm in Iowa.

She’s birdlike, frail-looking, pointy-chinned. I had been there for two months before I started to suspect either her great tenderness or her great strength, because everything about her is so ordinary and small.

I went to Peru for discernment and healing, but also, let’s face it, looking for excitement and adventure and really wild things.1 Mother Agnes wasn’t what I had in mind.

The order had just moved from to this place from a suburb of Lima, and they were looking for somewhere to build their new home. The “heart’s desire” she was talking about was all around us: everything green, rainforest-green, the wind bending the trees but somehow making everything seem more still. She said living in a place like this was what she had always wanted.

In terms of vocation, she seemed like a contradiction. When I think of someone who’s meant to leave their home country to confront poverty and disease of body and soul, I don’t think of Mother Agnes. If vocation is God fitting you for a certain life, wouldn’t he have made her strong, brazen, robust? Maybe even a little swarthy? Maybe he could have given her a better ear for languages, too — her Spanish, after five years in the country, was worse than mine.

But there she was in Peru, talking about her heart’s desire, smiling bigger than you would believe.

Vocation has everything to do with desire, but not always how you’d think. A priest’s vocation to the celibate life doesn’t consist in not fancying marriage. Rather the opposite. I suspect that every true vocation means giving up something you care deeply about.2

But there’s desire, and then there’s Desire. I think so often about what I want — companionship, intimacy, pleasure — and those things are true and good, those things are worth wanting, but it’s not the deepest kind of desire.

Here’s another contradiction: desire takes work.

There’s a beautiful Buddhist3 story that my mother once told me. A young man goes to a Zen master and says he wants to see God. The Master takes him to a lake and says, Okay, kneel down. So they both kneel down by the lake. Then the Master grabs the young man’s head and shoves it under the water.

He’s pretty strong for an old man! He holds him there, notwithstanding the poor guy’s increasingly desperate struggles. Finally, after a good minute or so, he lets him up. When he does — the guy is gasping and spluttering, can’t believe that a great sage would do something like that — the Master says: “You want to see God? When you want to see him as badly as you wanted to breathe ten seconds ago — that’s when you’ll see him.”

Desire takes strength. Desire takes patience. Desire isn’t what you want at the moment. It’s what your whole heart wants. If only you can bear to cut away all the dead wood, or let it be cut away. If only you will listen.

1 Ten points if you know who I’m quoting, and how many heads he has.
2 See Eliot’s Little Gidding: “A condition of complete simplicity / (Costing not less than everything)”.
3 Okay, so I don’t know whether this is actually a Buddhist story, or makes any kind of sense in a Buddhist context. Whaddaya want, I don’t know from Buddhism. But stet, because it’s a hell of a story.

I admit I used to pray that my SSA would be taken away. I guess I still do, occasionally, though not with great conviction. I reckon that if He wanted to take it away, He would have by now, and it’s not something I should worry about too much.

Besides, in one sense, I doubt He could do it. God can do anything, but as Dorothy Sayers pointed out, some propositions aren’t “things” at all. That’s why the old business with can-he-make-a-rock-so-heavy-he-can’t-lift-it, is nonsense. It’s like saying, “Oh yeah? If God’s so powerful, can He make a point that oranges a square?”

The reason I doubt He could do it is this. My SSA isn’t my essence, but it’s deep inside me, and it’s tied to everything else. I have a beautiful children’s book by Jean Vanier. In one of the illustrations, Jesus is carefully untangling a sheep that’s gotten caught in the thorns. I think that for God to suddenly undo my SSA would be like yanking the sheep out of those thorns. What else would come away with it?

Speaking of thorns: not long ago at Mass we had the parable of the wheat and the tares, a story that seemed perverse to me when I was younger (why not just yank out all the weeds NOW?), but which I understand better now. Things are mixed now, they are tangled and unclear; that is the nature of the world. We can’t just yank out the parts that don’t suit us, because we don’t know what they’re for, and because we don’t know what they’re attached to: “while you are pulling up the weeds, you may uproot the wheat with them.”

What would it be like if tomorrow I woke up straight? What would I be like? I can’t imagine. Would I be attracted to women but still desire men emotionally? That would be an impossible situation, and I wouldn’t be any more suited for marriage than I am now. Then would I suddenly not want intimacy with men?

First of all, that would be just as unnatural as wanting the wrong kind. People are made for intimacy with people, and all men, straight or gay, are meant for friendship. It’s also true, though, that the specific kind of desire I have for men — the romantic kind — isn’t natural and isn’t good.1 But that’s the reason it’s not the kind of thing God takes away.

I mean this: He doesn’t take away my SSA for the same reason that He won’t magically make me unselfish, or courageous; he won’t zap away my laziness or my self-indulgence. These are things that, by their nature, take work. If I was the kind of person who actually wanted to get out of bed at 6AM every morning, or who just naturally felt cheerful all the time, that wouldn’t mean I was virtuous. It would just mean I was lucky.

Where would I be if I had been born without clear and obvious flaws? I’d be arrogant as all get out, for one. The fact that I can still manage to be arrogant now, even after seeing myself be petty and selfish on innumerable occasions, is pretty astonishing.

Imagine how screwed I’d be if there were nothing wrong with me?

1 I know that even a lot of Christians will disagree with me here. That’s fine with me. I do hold that, though the desire in itself isn’t natural or good, it’s based on something that is natural and good.

Post-party blues. I had more than twenty people over last night, and all I’ve got to show for it is a kitchen floor covered in beery footprints — someone brought a keg?! — and a pantry full of tortilla fragments and mostly-empties.

It was fun, which frankly sort of surprised me. For someone who used to be scared of going to parties at all — or really even just talking to people in general — hosting one is kind of an achievement. I spent a good part of the day cleaning up, buying supplies, and just generally fretting.

But! Everyone had a good time, nobody got drunk enough to be sick, and nobody seemed to be skulking around in the shadows and feeling left out. I got to play the good host, going from group to group, making sure everyone had a drink, providing blankets and couches for the unfit-to-drive. I was proud of myself.

I wasn’t quite prepared for the letdown afterwards, though, and I admit that I spent a good part of today being lazy and watching too many episodes of Angel, just trying to adjust to the place being empty again.

So, things learned from my first hosting experience: (1) If every time someone asks what they can bring you say “beer”, that will probably be too much beer. (2) Guests are not always adept enough in body language to pick up on the universal symbol for “I’m enjoying your company tremendously but I would enjoy falling asleep before dawn EVEN MORE.” (3) Just because it’s a party full of nice Catholic people doesn’t mean nobody’s beard will get set on fire.1

I think I might be too tired to have a point.

1 Not mine.

This morning I found these in my inbox:

CFRsCFR #2

These are CFRs, as in “the Community of the Franciscans of the Renewal.” They’re an order founded by Fr. Benedict Groeschel, among others. They work with the poor, but also they are the poor. I always think that if St. Francis were starting today, this is what it would look like. I don’t think I’ve seen a picture of CFRs where at least one of them wasn’t grinning, which is the way it should be.

It reminded me of my own time spent among religious brothers and sisters. I spent three months in Peru back in ’08, not doing much besides sweeping, cooking, praying, and studying Spanish. Three hours of Adoration a day! It was as close to Heaven as I’ve been.

After I returned to the US, I was still coasting on that tremendous infusion, still living like a saint, or anyway trying to, which comes to the same thing. It took a while to wear off, but wear off it did.

Why did it wear off? That’s easy to answer. I stopped spending three hours in prayer every day, stopped going to daily Mass, and stopped living among people who saw themselves as walking, every moment, in the presence of God. I stopped seeing every human encounter as an encounter with the living God, and as an opportunity to bring more of His love into the world.

It’s hard to live like that!1 My tendency is always to fall asleep, to disappear into the routine, to put on the autopilot. Over and over I’m infused with grace, over and over it leaches out again. I’m like a sieve, or maybe a tire with a slow leak.

All day, since seeing those pictures, I’ve been hearing this phrase: Where is your treasure?2 He’s knocking. He wants me back.

1 Although possibly easier than the alternative, which is: not living like that.
2 As in Matthew 6:21.