Monthly Archives: November 2011

This place looks just like a Kung Fu dojo should look. It’s in the seedy section of town,1 egg-rolled2 between a Chinese restaurant and a 7-11. Inside the students are moving in slow motion; the T’ai Chi class is right before the Kung Fu class. The sifu — that’s Kung Fu for sensei — is a big guy, with tattooed forearms and a ponytail, and kind eyes that (I’ll learn) look right at you but not through you.

When I open the door everyone’s heads turn, and they give me a chipper chorus of “Hello, sir!” That should be cheesy, but instead it feels welcoming, a relief. I didn’t expect to be this nervous. They are all ages: some early teens, some twenty-somethings, some middle-agers.

T’ai Chi ends and the Sifu gives me the tour: changing room, bathroom, practice room, lockers. “Well,” I say, “I sure am looking forward to watching a class!” “Watching!” he says. “Why watch when you can join in?” Crap. “Of course!” I say, not really unprepared for this — I wore athletic pants — but maybe hoping I could escape this time. No such luck.

Pre-class stretching. The students chat in loose groups. Unconsciously I steer away from the group of guys my age and land next to a middle-aged man who looks friendly. Tactical error: will they peg me as timid already? But no, of course not; they’re not thinking about me at all.

Stretches. On my other side is a fat girl. Maybe I won’t look so bad next to her? But then she spreads her legs out impossibly wide in front of her, and brings her left shoulder sideways till it touches her left knee. “Wow,” I say, gaping like an idiot. “You’re really flexible.” “Don’t worry,” she says kindly, “you’ll get there.” I don’t mind.

Class is underway, and somehow I’m already not thinking about how I look compared to anyone else. The effect, possibly, of the endless leg lifts and bicycles and pushups and crunches and twists and squats and — sheesh, I can’t remember the last time I’ve sweated this much. But I didn’t know I could kick that high in the air.

Sifu Gary is a good teacher, in that he doesn’t explain too much: he demonstrates a move a few times, then trusts us to learn from each other, walking around with encouragements and corrections. There’s something warm about him, and I can see that it’s rubbed off on the others. I look around: where do these people come from? If you scattered them in a typical Massachusetts crowd, you could pick them out by their glow.

I begin to see how the class works, everyone learning from those above, everyone building up those below. A good system. You would expect the men my age to be embarrassed by the yes sirs and the high fives and the general cheerfulness of the place, but they’re not. Nobody’s being ironic, nobody seems guarded. What is this place?

I’m exhausted. I look at the clock for the first time all night — it’s been over an hour! We are lining up and bowing. It’s not until I leave — after ordering a gi and signing up for the rest of the month — that I feel my face relax. It hurts from smiling.

Granted, I also smile when I’m nervous, but still.

1 One of them. I think seediness is this city’s primary export.
2 Ha, I was gonna say “sandwiched” but egg rolls are more Chinese. Get it? ‘Cuz…meh.

Patsy Cline, Roy Orbison, Sam Cooke. My new Pandora station has been helping to keep me sane. I should be depending on the Lord for that, but I ask you: who else could have made Patsy Cline? Music always makes me think of colors, and Patsy is a deep, breathless blue, like a summer sky at midnight.

Thank God for Pandora, too, because all of my old music is so saturated in memories that I can hardly listen to it. You know how it is: just a few measures and you are back in another era of life, with all the joys and anxieties you felt then. Passing my fingers through my CD collection turns my hand into a geiger counter.

Amy Winehouse takes me back to the coffee shop, grading papers and cursing the recalcitrant hides of my beloved, thickheaded students. Espinoza Paz puts me in the car, driving through Phoenix’ summer blaze, like a fly looking for somewhere to settle and something cool to drink. Beirut’s Slavic wailings and anachronistic trumpets bring me back to a Colorado mountain range, on a solo road trip to from Phoenix to Boulder, melancholy and anticipatory: always traveling, never arriving.

Classical music doesn’t have the same effect. Does that speak well for classical and ill for pop, or are they just two different beasts? When I hear Bartok’s 4th string quartet, I don’t think of the first time I heard it; I can’t even remember the first time I heard it, any more than I can remember the first time I saw the moon. I know Bach’s 5th English Suite like I know the road home; I can hum the melody and even the counterpoint (is there any difference in Bach?) without thinking, but somehow it remains what it has always been, the same inexorable mapping of unseen mysteries.

Lewis calls God so masculine that we are all feminine in relation to Him.1 Maybe the same is true, or can be true, of music. Pop is receptive: it succeeds insofar as it provides us with a vessel that conforms to the contours of our own personalities, something to be filled with the parts of us that we can’t contain. But classical music fills us, penetrates us, rather than the other way around.

Bach and Bartok are impervious to me and my memories. God bless them both.

1 See Ransom’s speech in That Hideous Strength: “You are offended by the masculine itself: the loud irruptive, possessive thing — the gold lion, the bearded bull — which breaks through hedges and scatters the little kingdom of your primness as the dwarfs scattered the carefully made bed. The male you could have escaped, for it exists only on the biological level. But the masculine none of us can escape. What is above and beyond all things is so masculine that we are all feminine in relation to it.”

“It is funny how mortals always picture us as putting things into their minds: in reality our best work is done by keeping things out.”1

To be a Christian is to know that the phrase “too good to be true” is nonsense. A thing is true insofar as it is good, and good insofar as it is true. The best thing imaginable is the truest thing imaginable.

But the imagination is limited, and what’s more, it is under attack, whether by the old Ἐχθρός2 himself or just by the constant onslaught of mental and spiritual noise from the culture at large. As Screwtape points out above, the best way to attack the imagination is not to put things in but to keep things out.

So what does the enemy want kept out?

I’ve been reading a series of daily meditations3 aimed at overcoming sins against purity. Today’s meditation started with a prayer:

Come, Holy Spirit, come dispel the darkness of lust with the light of hope.

Dispel lust with hope? This didn’t make sense to me until I remembered the line I always get fed when I’m being tempted to sexual sin. It goes like this:

You are never going to get what you need. So take what you can.

This is an attack on hope via the imagination. Most people don’t masturbate or fornicate or look at porn because of the pleasure it involves. Sexual sin comes from the hunger for deep contact with someone who loves you. The setup for a really successful temptation always involves convincing the temptee that such a thing is impossible — or at least forever out of reach.

The unclouded imagination — the imagination that has been fed on prayer, meditation, holy images, Scripture, the lives of the saints — can picture, however dimly, the Beatific Vision. It knows that the loving contact it wants is ultimately found in God, in living close to his heart. The unclouded imagination knows that living close to God’s heart will open our hearts both to the joie de vivre that the habitual sinner lacks, and to the love of other human beings.

But this is precisely what a tempted human being is prevented from imagining.

And because he can no longer picture divine love, he accepts a sickly substitute: the sad, solitary quasi-sexual4 act of self-abuse, the anonymous hookup, the mere agitation of body parts. Show me someone who thinks an orgasm is the best he can get, and I’ll show you someone whose imagination needs rekindling.

So come, Holy Spirit, give us hope. Direct our eyes to the fire of your beauty and our hearts to the fire of your love. Let us never be satisfied with anything less.

1 Screwtape, Senior Tempter in C. S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters.
2 Greek for “enemy,” although apparently it can also mean “one who hates”. Or just “hater.” Heh. Also used to beautiful effect in Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wind in the Door.
3 The book is called Clean of Heart, and you can find it here.
4 “Quasi-sexual” because — despite the infantile-but-still-damnable advice Planned Parenthood gives to teens [Follow link at your own risk -- PP's nonsense is full of language explicit enough to constitute an occasion of sin for some.] — masturbation ain’t sex.

“Oh Steve,” laughed my friend Hilda on the phone, “you think God wants you to be lonely, don’t you?”

This was a couple of years ago, in Dallas. I was visiting UD over spring break and savoring the feeling of being surrounded by old friends, and had been wondering out loud whether it might not be good to live in a place where I actually knew people.

Hilda has a very wry way of being compassionate. She laughed at me because she is very familiar with the brand of short-sightedness that we both share: it’s easy to forget that God wants you to be happy, especially when you are used to thinking of yourself as a martyr.

Well, there’s martyrs and there’s martyrs. The readings at Mass these past few days, from Maccabees, have been full of them.1 Yesterday there was the woman who watches her seven sons die in front of her, exhorting the youngest: “Do not be afraid of this executioner, but be worthy of your brothers and accept death, so that in the time of mercy I may receive you again with them.”

Today there was Mattathias, who defies the king to his face, overturns the pagan altar, and runs through the city shouting, “Let everyone who is zealous for the law and who stands by the covenant follow after me!”

These people have something in common, besides their fidelity to God’s commandments even in the face of death. It is this: they are extremely badass.2 Badassery is one of the most overlooked characteristics of martyrs. Sure, there’s the self-abnegation and the discipline and the years of stolid persistence in the way of the Lord, but there’s also the ¡Viva Cristo Rey! of Miguel Pro in front of the firing squad, and St. Lawrence’s hard-to-top “Turn me over, I’m done on this side” while the Romans roasted him.

My point isn’t that every second of the Christian life is packed with swashbuckling and romance.3 It’s this: God wants real men, not a bunch of sallow-faced nicelings.4

Celibacy is a kind of martyrdom, no mistake — just ask the woman whose husband runs off with another woman (or man), leaving her to deal with the fact that they are still married and always will be — but being a martyr doesn’t mean sitting around and working up a good head of self-pity, the better to offer up your oh-so-poignant-pain. It means courage, fire, zeal, and not a little chutzpah.

That courage can be a challenge for men with SSA, because many of us are easily cowed by the thought of rejection. Will I stay in and watch TV by myself, or will I call a friend, even if he might be busy? Will I accept the invitation to play basketball after work, or will I make up an excuse so I don’t have to risk the embarrassment? When I hear the guys next door making a ruckus, will I knock on their door with a couple of beers or will I go to bed and feel sorry for myself?

Whichever I choose on any given day, this is always true: SSA is a cross, but cowardice is not. Some things are meant to be endured, and some things are meant to be overcome. Like the alcoholics say: Lord, grant us the wisdom to know the difference.

1 I mean the second kind.
2 For some reason I think Marc Barnes, of the Bad Catholic blog, would appreciate this paragraph.
3 Although, really, the more the better.
4 That’s a real word because I say so.

While working on some of the kinks in my laptop, I accidentally introduced more kinks. Haven’t had internet at home for days. I’m not ignoring your emails, I swear…just can’t do them justice on my phone’s tiny keyboard. Meantime, let us continue to pray for one another.

“‘Supposing the Pope looked up and saw a cloud and said ‘It’s going to rain’, would that be bound to happen?’
‘Oh, yes, Father.’
‘But supposing it didn’t?’
He thought a moment and said, “I suppose it would be sort of raining spiritually, only we were too sinful to see it.’”1

How many times have you prayed and actually expected an answer?

“For peace among all the nations, we pray to the Lord. –Lord, hear our prayer.” Yeah, right, we in the pews are thinking, and I’d like a pony, too. Stop our wars! Cure our cancer! Get my brother-in-law a job! But please, don’t bother if it’s too much trouble.

Prayer is supposed to be a conversation with another Person, and we pretend that it is, but more often it’s really a kind of wishful monologue, an airing of vague desires. We should be saying, Please won’t you do this? But more often we’re really saying: Wouldn’t it be nice if that were possible.

That’s not prayer, it’s wishful thinking. I call it wishful thinking, not because it’s unrealistic to expect God to answer our prayers, but because we don’t expect anything of the kind. We manage our expectations, like a cancer patient waiting for the results of his latest test. Because we secretly suspect that God either doesn’t exist, or just doesn’t care. Or maybe, we tell ourselves, he’ll answer our prayers “in a spiritual sense” — which is to say, not at all.

It’s like a man who won’t try to walk after spinal surgery: Maybe my legs will work and maybe they won’t, but if I stay in this wheelchair then I can’t be disappointed.

Last Sunday I went to Adoration angry. I didn’t know why I was angry, didn’t even notice the storm building until it was already a typhoon. I went to give God half an hour, but five minutes in I realized it wouldn’t be enough, and told him so: No, you’re not getting off that easy. You tell me what this is about. I’ve got all evening, and I’m not leaving until you say something.

He said something, all right. He showed me a memory,2 an old unhealed wound from 15 years ago. Okay, I said, so why did you let it happen? Why did you let me get hurt that way? Where were you? I was almost surprised when he answered that question, too, and answered it to my satisfaction.

Sorry, readers, you don’t get to know the answer. I don’t think it would mean anything to you even if I told you; you’ll have to ask Jesus for your own answers. But what he said to me made me sob and shake like a toddler in his father’s arms.

Which is exactly where I was, and where I remain.

1 Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited.
2 This, and what comes after, has very much to do with the book I’m reading — Crisis in Masculinity, by Leanne Payne. The book talks about something called the healing of memories, which is exactly what happened here. Do take a look!

Ever watch kids with their friends? I mean really little kids, like maybe first or second grade. At that age, having a friend means having someone who is around the same height as you, and doesn’t try to take your food. Or anyway doesn’t hit you when he takes it. Or anyway not too often.

We grow up and things are different. Better, mostly, because there’s nothing like making contact with someone who sees the world as you do, hears the same music at the same time. Someone who’s flawed in some of the same ways you are flawed, which means you can laugh about it together instead of agonizing over it alone.

First graders don’t have that kind of friendship; they can’t, because they don’t know what flaws are and their ears aren’t developed enough to hear the music, much less share it. But they also don’t put up the same walls we do. By adolescence, our heads are already filled with stories about everyone we see, even if we’ve just met them. I can’t be friends with him, because he’s different; or he won’t like me; or we’ll have nothing in common. Look at the clothes he wears! I can tell already, we’ll never be friends.

My default stance with men my age is one of deference. Put me one on one with a man my age and I’ll feel six or ten or twenty years younger than I am: he’s a man of almost thirty, but I’m a boy, and a shy one at that. But for just a moment today, joking around with a coworker my age before a meeting, the walls came down and I smelled the green grass on the other side.

I remembered what it was like, just being with someone without a thought in my head. I saw the two of us from the outside: same height, same build (matter of fact, he’s skinnier). Who would guess one of us wasn’t a man — or felt like he wasn’t? I saw myself the way you see yourself in a triple mirror: just some guy. The sort of guy I might be scared of, or might want to be.

Well. It was just a moment, but it affected the rest of my day. Is it possible to see myself that way all the time? I think so. Maybe not for a while yet. But it’s good to remember what I’m moving towards.

So many posts I’d like to write. Today was better than I expected it to be. In Mass, the readings seemed designed to encourage and challenge me; in Adoration, Jesus reached down deep into my heart and scrubbed away something nasty; and then I got to see my sister, besides.

But I should really go to bed instead of posting. Big week ahead of me. I will leave you with this beautiful joke from a reader (to whom I have yet to respond via email — getting there!):

Job dies and meets the Lord. The Lord says, “Welcome to my Heavenly Kingdom. Is there anything you want to say to me before we enter?”

“Yes,” says Job. “I was your faithful servant, obeyed all your laws and commandments. I hate to complain, but why did all those bad things happen to me?”

The Lord ponders the question for a few seconds, looks at Job and says, “You know, Job, you really are a nice guy, but for some reason, you just piss me off!”

The end. To Jesus: C’mon, I know you can take a joke. To the Patriots: pull yourselves together, for Pete’s sake. To everyone else: Happy Sunday.

Heyyy, my article about vocations is up at Our Sunday Visitor! I b’lieve it will be out in print on the 13th, but you can read it online right here. Tell yer friends.