Collect


Collect for the Fourth Sunday after Easter

O Almighty God, who alone makest the hearts of the faithful to be of one will: grant unto thy people, that they may love the thing which thou commandest, and desire that which thou dost promise; that so, among the sundry and manifold changes of the world, our hearts may surely be there fixed, where true joys are to be found; through Jesus Christ thy Son, our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, ever one God, world without end.
Amen.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Five Quick Takes

I.


Happy Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul! I'm quite fond of this feast. St Peter has long been one of my heroes: he's such a magnificent example, throughout the Gospels and even into Acts and Galatians, of someone in the process of conversion. His simplicity, in both the bad and the good sense, is something of a byword, and it's encouraging to someone like me who trips over his own feet so much.

Being raised a Presbyterian, I'd had St Paul being shoved into my mouth and both ears for as long as I could remember, and so for a little while after my conversion to Catholicism I felt sort of Pauled out. But I feel now as if I've rediscovered him a little; I don't understand all of what he says very well, but the moving language with which he speaks of Jesus is difficult to rival. Modern scholarship tends to be so concerned with him as either a hellfire-preaching misogynist and homophobe, or a modern egalitarian who wrote none of the work ascribed to him (which was in fact written by another man of the same name), that the real focus and energy of his writings is often lost. But it is from St Paul -- not even, as we might have expected, from St John -- that we get passages like the hymn to love, the hymn of Christ's kenosis, or such arresting and beautiful pieces of mysticism as: I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me; or, Since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead, for as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.

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II.

My parish had an exciting adventure this weekend: we had a long day of rain in Baltimore, and the undercroft and side stairwell flooded. Vacuuming water off the floors and out of the carpet, emptying every bucket and trash can we could find into the sidewalk drain, prying down broken and sagging ceiling tiles, and praying that it wouldn't start raining again in the night, took up well over five hours. One of the hazards, I guess, of a church building that was constructed in 1842.


Thank God it wasn't in the sanctuary. Or during Mass.

Repairing the leak, which is probably a problem with the flashing on one of the long-disused chimneys, shouldn't be problematic in itself, but our church is neither large nor wealthy. We need a new boiler, which is expected to run to $50K, among a myriad of other budget needs large and small. Please pray for us -- and if you'd like to donate to help us with the boiler too, thanks very much, and the parish address is:

Mount Calvary Church
816 North Eutaw Street
Baltimore, MD 21201-4624

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III.

The Baltimore city authorities have displayed a striking lack of conscience and compassion recently. With only a few days' notice (assuming the signs were put up when they're dated for), an area under one of the overpasses in the city where local homeless folks set up their tents has been abruptly fenced off. As far as I can tell, there is no reason for this except to kick the homeless out of it -- the sign that it is closed "for cleaning" notwithstanding, since, in my observation (I drive past it nearly every day on my way to work), it's one of the cleaner places in Baltimore, possibly because there were people living there who don't care to sleep in heaps of garbage.


Taken the day before yesterday with my phone at Franklin Street and (ha) Martin Luther King Boulevard.

It's a field under an overpass, not a shopping center or a spacious neighborhood (though personally I find it hard to sympathize with the idea that homeless people ought to be kicked out of those, either). It's one of the few place they could erect their tents in a place with a little less rain and sun than usual, and that in a summer that has been alternating between the standard cloying heat of the Chesapeake and an atypical series of chilly, turbulent, wet days and weeks. Even on a purely natural level, these people are just as much a part of Baltimore as anybody else -- it's stupid and callous to eject them from a patch of land they've been using for at least the last few years. And on a supernatural level, well, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto the least of these, My brethren, ye have done it unto Me.

I'm kind of a dunce when it comes to knowing whom to contact about this sort of thing. Can anyone advise me? -- city officials (and if so which ones), philanthropists, journalists, something?

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IV.

This will probably be my last post for a week or two; in addition to the work I'm devoting to other projects, I will be out of the world for a spell in early July. Some friends of mine make a trip up to the Adirondacks every summer, and they've invited me to go with them, three years running now. I love being up there: being away from the bustle of daily work, to say nothing of the sleepless noise of the city, out in the forested mountains, eating trail mix and bacon cooked over fires and earning blisters in the boots you never got around to breaking in before you left.


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V.


My novel, Death's Dream Kingdom, has been delayed. I'd hoped to have it out by the first of July, but a lot of other obligations have caught up with me, so it'll likely take rather longer. I'll keep you all updated. To tide you over, here is another selection from it.


After Marie had fled up the stairs, Augustus remained below, pacing the library for more than an hour. He hesitated over this volume or that at times, unable to drum up real interest in any. When some time had gone by, he murmured aloud, though no living soul could hear him:
Quand la pierre, opprimant ta poitrine peureuse
Et tes flancs qu’assouplit un charmant nonchaloir,
Empêchera ton coeur de battre et de vouloir,
Et tes pieds de courir leur course aventureuse,
Le tombeau, confident de mon rêve infini.”*
He rubbed his fingers together, as if to warm them. At last, he turned his steps out of the library and went to a door beneath the servants’ stair. He reached into the collar of his shirt, and pulled a cord up over his head, from which there hung a heavy key; he opened the door with it and went inside, shutting the door behind him, and from the outside the noise of the lock being re-secured could be heard.


Marie passed the day in a trance-like languor. Except for her brief outburst of tears, she sat still on her bed, staring out of the curtains that she had never bothered to shut properly, and making no reply to Hyacinth’s knocks. Slowly, the column of sunlight let in by the window, which she could see would never cross the bed itself, crept over the floor, the inverse of the shadow on a sundial.
At a quarter past four, there was a soft knock on her door. “Bonsoir,” came Augustus’ voice through the wood. “May I come in?”
“Yes,” she answered indifferently.
He did, and gave a sharp cry of alarm. “Hell, child! Are you mad, leaving the drapes open like that? You could have been burned alive!”
“Not really,” she said.
Throwing Marie an invidious look, her sire went to the window, cautiously skirting the deadly light of the fading sunset, and pulled the cord that drew the curtains shut. He then went over to the wall lamp and turned it up, filling the room with a pink-tinged light.
“How are you this evening?” he asked.
She said nothing. All of her emotions and reactions seemed to have been drained from her by the strains and shocks of the previous night. Everything, even looking from one object to another, seemed to require a Sisyphean effort.
“Come and have something for breakfast.”
“I am not hungry.”
“Go on,” he coaxed, “it will make you feel better. Something out of a glass again.”
“I am not hungry.”
Marie looked up at Augustus. He appeared – well, no, he appeared as unassailably suave as ever to the eye. But something about him felt different: anxious, or something.
She turned to face the Holy Communion of Saint Teresa on her wall. “Did you paint that?”
He walked over to it, touching the frame lightly. “Yes. I spent a whole summer on it, back in 1745 – the days get so long, and there is little enough to do. I copied a number of paintings in the eighteenth century; most of the pictures you see about the house are my own work; quite flawless, if I do say so, though I owe that more to my undead eyes and hands than to native talent. There is a Bacchus in the library – Caravaggio’s – and Fuseli’s Lady MacBeth is in my private study. And of course you have seen Titian’s Venus With a Mirror in the tower, among others.”
“How did you do it?”
“Do what?”
“Copy a sacred subject?” she asked. “We are vulnerable to sacred things, aren’t we?”
“Yes, ma fleurette, but this is only a picture.”
“I don’t understand.”
“The sanctity does not come from the subject matter, but from the essential function of the artwork,” Augustus said. “In order for this to injure me or you, it would need to have been painted in order to serve as an icon, in a church or a chapel, and blessed accordingly. Without that, there is no sacramental power in the mere painted shapes, and it is simply” (he laid his hand over the saint’s face) “a picture. You’ll find in the same way that you can, for instance, quote from the Bible or the texts of the Mass when your intention is purely literary, but that you are quite unable to pray.”
“Why is it that we are vulnerable to these things?”
“My dear, if I knew that I should have blown up Saint George’s Cathedral. The traditional explanation is that we have no souls; though personally, I do not feel that I have seen any great evidence of souls in humans, either, so that the explanation does not explain. Be that as it may, a fact is a fact, and for practical purposes that is enough.”
Marie smiled, a little incredulous. “You are an immortal creature who can read thoughts and must fear the words and gestures of a priest, and yet you are skeptical about the existence of the soul?”
He smiled back, not nicely, and replied, “And do you feel any differently than you did before?”
Her stomach twisted around itself. She stared back at him, mute. Smug as a cat, Lord Ravenhurst put out his arm for her, and she angrily took it and went down with him to the dining room.

*"When the stone, oppressing your frightened breast

And your flanks, now supple with charming nonchalance,
Will keep your heart from beating and from wishing
And your feet from running their adventurous course,
The grave, confidante of my limitless dreams ..."
From Remords Posthume ('Remorse after Death') by Charles Baudelaire.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

A Pacifist Manifesto


I've written before, especially in the wake of the report to Congress on the outcome of state-sanctioned torture under Bush and Obama, of my pacifist convictions. I've wanted for some time to outline them more clearly; they express and govern, not simply an attitude to war, but an attitude to all interpersonal interactions, that I believe is badly needed in this country. St John Paul II's words about a culture of death hovering over the world apply just as much to the money-worshippers, war criminals, abortion advocates, and racist bigots of America and western Europe as they do to the fanatical religious terrorists, child-conscripting warlords, police state oppressors, and drug-trafficking butcher mafiosi of the rest of the world.

Violence is an abhorrent thing. This is the principle from which all pacifist conviction proceeds; and it is a principle that, though simple and obvious enough, is worth stating, because an awful lot of the time, debates over things like Just War Theory or gun control start at the wrong end -- with practicalities. I have nothing against being practical, but starting with the practical is the wrong way to do it, because in order for something to be practical, we need first to know what it is we are practicing and why. The inherent flaw of all mere pragmatism is its breezy uselessness; action, especially revolution, comes only from idealists.

Violence is abhorrent because life is precious. Life; that is, the lives of all human persons. (Though a legitimate and interesting inquiry, I won't be touching on animal rights here.) Any ethic that does not accept the sanctity of human life cannot be pacifistic, which is one of the reasons that the American Left has not succeeded in being consistently anti-war for a long time. It has opposed the Right, certainly; but mere opposition to the Right is of no importance in itself. But the support the Left gives to abortion*, assisted suicide, and euthanasia makes it impossible for it to be really pacifistic, because the essential quality that makes violence wrong has already been dispensed with. It is of course equally impossible for the Right to be pacifistic (not that it would be), because, for all its co-option of the pro-life cause, its typical endorsement of the death penalty, its military hawkishness, its hostility to immigration and public health services, and its acceptance of torture all defile any claim to regard life as sacred.


Both parties being wrong? Whodathunkit?

Now, one of the corollaries of the sanctity of life is the duty and right to preserve one's own life. The Church teaches, and I accept, that this makes violent acts to defend oneself or someone else against a violent aggressor morally legitimate. This is the root of the concepts of self-defense, protection of others (especially but not only one's family), law enforcement, and Just War Theory -- all of which I accept in principle. It's impossible to deny that every one of these ideas, as practiced by humans, is subject to human imperfection, and increasingly so the more humans are involved. Nevertheless, the maxim stands that Abuse does not abolish use; and one could hardly demand that, say, a man stand aside and let a home invader rape his wife, on the grounds that US conduct in Vietnam was reprehensible.

So, I acknowledge self-defensive violence -- let us say, chivalry -- to be intrinsically allowable. But I renounce it. Renunciation is a mirror image of denunciation: where denunciation condemns a thing in itself as bad, renunciation (what the doctors and mystics have called the Way of Negation, or apophatic theology) seeks God by forsaking a recognized good. Pacifism, set beside chivalry, is thus like celibacy set beside marriage, fasting set beside feasting, or vowed obedience set beside personal liberty.

But non-violence in itself is not very significant, for the same reason that not having sex isn't very significant unless you use it to refocus your attention and energies toward God. That reverence for life and for one's fellow-man has to be more than merely negating the impulse to injure him for liking Nickelback; more, even, than choosing, difficult and worthwhile though it is, to forsake one's right to defend oneself, out of respect for the image of God even in an aggressor. I identify the following principles as a fully pacifist ethos, the body of non-violence animated by the soul of charity.


1. Magnanimity. It's difficult to get this idea into a single word; magnanimity in the Aristotelian sense, which my Thomist readers may think of, is a somewhat different thing: generally it means being above revengefulness, or more generally, the opposite of being petty. That is included here. But more than that, the idea I'm going for as an outworking of pacifism is the deliberate choice to think as well of other people as the evidence allows you to. In other words, taking their words and actions in the kindest, most generous sense you know how; considering whether they may not be right, not least because it's hard to be unbiased towards oneself; remembering that even if what they say or do is truly unfair, or worse, they may have all sorts of extenuating circumstances of which we can have no knowledge, and extending them the benefit of the doubt, because for all we know they are doing as rightly as they know how -- and perhaps a lot better than we would in their shoes.

This is a hard virtue to master, because of course it's (usually) easy to think well of people who are nice to you, so that magnanimity is mostly called for when dealing with jerks. This, too, is why I speak of a deliberate choice, and not a sunny disposition. Having a sunny disposition is a capital thing, but it's also easily dispelled in most people, and when things get rough, a pleasant temper is no substitute for a will firm in the habit of love.


2. Restraint. This virtue could be flippantly summed up as "the opposite of comboxes." It's funny and sad that patience, which is theoretically so easy to practice at a keyboard (if only for the mechanical reason that it takes longer to type something than it does to say it), should be so nearly absent from the internet. Of course, it isn't only on the internet that we need patience; it's easy to see the chinks in a Christian's practice of moderation and long-suffering at Starbucks or in traffic.

It's more than just patience, though; restraint involves recognizing the limits of what we can and can't know. We can guess that, say, the defendant in such-and-such a case is guilty/a racist/likes Nickelback, but we can't know it. And we shouldn't pretend that we do. We can suspect that so-and-so who wrote that nasty article about us is a closeted and self-hating homophobe, or anti-Catholic, or a crypto-Marxist, but we can't know it. And we shouldn't claim to. It isn't merely that such behavior is rude and unloving, though it certainly is. It's that this lack of reverence for the image of God in one's brother, this refusal to extend the grace and charity and generosity that are the stuff of life (for all life is lived as a gift from others), is precisely the root of violence. Restraining your violent hands is mere repression if you don't do so by opening your heart to love and compassion, begging the grace to do so.


Matthias Gruenewald, The Small Crucifixion, 1510

3. Forgiveness. It's startling to me, and tragic, to see how little this virtue is practiced among Christians in this country. There's no shortage of bitterness, wrath, and rage-porn (thanks, HuffPost!), especially when it comes to horrible things like child abuse in the Church. There is also a great deal of the opposite problem of invalid indulgence: i.e., waving things away, pretending that they don't matter. This is lousy ethics, because it's lousy theology. An indulgence (roughly, letting someone off from a punishment) can only be granted to someone who has been forgiven already, and forgiving a sin requires confession and contrition -- i.e., acknowledging sin for what it is, and being sorry and saying so -- to come first. (The sickening behavior of Archbishop Nienstedt and the officials of the Archdiocese of Minneapolis-St Paul is an example of utter failure to confess or to be contrite, and of attempting to acquire indulgences and apply them to others to ameliorate the penalties of unabsolved sins.)

And mark this: of its very nature, forgiveness is a gift; and gifts cannot be demanded. It's excluded by the nature of what a gift is -- something unearned, an act of generosity on the part of the giver. No justice can bind any person to forgive. Of course, if we refuse to forgive, then we will not be forgiven, but that seems to have more to do with the cosmic laws of spiritual causality than with a rule imposed arbitrarily from without.

Nor, however fashionable it may be to point out the psychological and even physiological benefits of forgiveness, is it really possible to forgive in order to benefit oneself by forgiving. That, too, is contrary to the nature of forgiveness. It turns the gift into a kind of purchase, making the words of absolution a price for one's own peace of mind. No. Forgiveness is about the other person, not ourselves. Joss Whedon, though an atheist, knows far better: "To forgive is an act of compassion, Buffy. It isn't given because it's deserved, it's given because it's needed." Or, in Pauline language, While we were yet sinners, Christ died for the ungodly.

You can't, of course, compel repentance in another soul. If you could, we'd be living in a world of robots; the fact that the robots were made of flesh and bone would make no difference to that. But you can be ready to extend forgiveness at any moment, hoping for it, praying for it, opening one's heart to it. And that means ...


4. Bearing the Cost. This is not different in substance from forgiveness; in Hannah Hurnard's beautiful allegory Hind's Feet on High Places, the central character encounters a little speaking flower which says to her, "My name is 'Bearing-the-Cost,' but some call me 'Forgiveness.'" But the two do differ in expression. Forgiveness, insofar as it involves repentance and reconciliation, is the perfection of bearing the cost; bearing the cost is the decision to open oneself to forgiveness. And this decision is, metaphysically, the embrace of martyrdom.

Make no mistake: it is far easier (for most of us) to face forgiving someone than to face death, especially death by torture, as so many martyrs did. And forgiveness can be approached, though not completed, with pretty mixed motives.** But there is a continuum between the two decisions. Both involve the deliberate choice to open oneself to injury, to accept the anguish of being victimized by another person's sin, rather than retaliating. The Crucifixion is the model of this decision: Jesus did not run away; He did not resist; He didn't even ask them to stop torturing Him. He received the sins of Gentile and Jew, state and church, crowd and elite, stranger and friend, into Himself, and returned only love.

Very few of us will be called to that kind of self-sacrifice in the body. Most if not all of us, I suspect, will get the chance to make that kind of self-sacrifice of the soul; will suffer some injury or injustice so far from any justification as to leave open to us the possibility of a vicarious offering of ourselves to God for the sake of the offenders, praying with our Master, Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.


*I'd add that contraception, in my opinion, fails to fully acknowledge the sanctity of life. However, this, though important, is a related issue rather than a directly relevant one, and -- with certain exceptions -- contraceptives are generally concerned to prevent conception, rather than to procure the death of an embryonic human being, so that referring to contraceptives as a form of violence is at best misleading. Hence, I won't go further into the matter than to acknowledge here that it is a related and important topic of its own.

**Not that mixed here should be taken to mean false or thoroughly self-centered. Self-interest and even fear can prompt us to try to forgive; but the divine spark of love, however small, must be invested into the action if it is to be forgiveness. Thankfully, God distributes these sparks pretty freely.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

An Apologia for the Romantic Way

Tell me not (Sweet) I am unkinde
That from the Nunnerie
Of thy chaste breast and quiet minde
To Warre and Armes I flie. 
True; a new Mistresse now I chase,
The first Foe in the Field;
And with a stronger Faith imbrace
A Sword, a Horse, a Shield. 
Yet this inconstancy is such
As you too shall adore;
I could not love thee (Dear) so much
Lov'd I not Honor more. 
-- Richard Lovelace, To Lucasta, Going to the Warres, 1649

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Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Beata Beatrix, 1870

Before I differ from Tyler Blanski's article The Protohomosexual of a few weeks ago, I'd like to note an important agreement between us. He writes movingly in his final subsection ("We Are Oriented") of the intrinsic human impulse toward sexuality-as-procreation. There are other reasons that we are interested in sex, obviously, and other ways in which we display the urge to create; about the only thing we are told in Genesis about God, before being told that we are made in His image, is that He is a maker, and our creative drive is in a sense our most thoroughly human attribute. We share freedom and intellect with the angels, and we share body and social instinct with animals; but creativity appears to be a distinctly human phenomenon, and in sexual reproduction, every level of our being -- spiritual and animal -- is involved at once. No wonder it's so pleasurable, and so complicated.

So, as a philosopher* and as a Catholic, there is important overlap between Blanski's views and mine. And, in the last resort, I hold that that overlap is weightier than our divergence, not only because we are both Catholics (and therefore agree about things beside which even sexuality is almost trivial), but because our views of this topic are, I think, more similar to one another than either is to contemporary secular orthodoxy.

That said, there is a difference, and it is important.

Blanski, in seeking to answer the question of why so many straight people are pro-gay, turns to the Western romantic tradition, and particularly to the revolutionary shift that took place in the movement of Courtly Love. Of course, classical antiquity and the early Mediaevals knew perfectly well that people sometimes fall in love, but it hadn't been customary to admire them for it -- largely because no one can help observing that people make some absolutely terrible decisions under the influence of erotic love. The twelfth-century poets of Courtly Love practically invented a new way of looking at eros, of which the Arthurian tradition (especially the story of Guinevere and Lancelot) is probably the best-known modern survival among English speakers. It became a sort of erotic cult: the devotee considered himself the slave of his lady, and his love for her mixed the romantic with the worshipful. The Church was scandalized more than once by the tradition of Courtly Love; and, for their part, the troubadours were divided among themselves: some counted themselves dutiful sons of the Church, while others preferred to flaunt their dedication to their ladies as against the faith.


Edmund Blair Leighton, The Accolade, 1901

That lovers are inclined to rebel against any limits on their devotion is, of course, human nature, and did not begin with Courtly Love. What those poets did introduce was a quasi-religious attitude in which the service of the beloved became a kind of separate moral dispensation, one that could override other ethical principles. And it is this characteristic of Courtly Love which Blanski fixes his argument upon, citing its tendency toward narcissism, its removal of eros from the realities of daily life, its readiness to deceive and to betray, its dismissal of children from lovers' concerns, its general lawlessness. All of this forms it (Blanski argues) into a proto-homosexual disposition; i.e., it turns sexual love into an end in itself, instead of a means to the creation of the family, and therefore containing in itself the seeds to the modern LGBT rights movement.

Now, these were real traits of Courtly Love, both in its poetic theory and its lived practice. Nor -- though it has decayed considerably over the last century, largely due to the influence of Marxism (which decries the lover's service to his lady) and many forms of feminism (whose criticisms are more diverse) -- have we seen the end of the erotic tradition the troubadours gave birth to. But Courtly Love was not as simple as Blanski implies, nor can it be dismissed as summarily as he seems to want to do. The vigorously Catholic rebuttal to this element of his argument can be summed up in a single word: Beatrice.


Gustave Dore, Paradiso: Canto I, 1868

Dante, perhaps the greatest poet of Western history, didn't just write the Inferno. It was preceded by La Vita Nuova, which chronicled his earlier acquaintance with and love for Beatrice, and followed by Purgatorio and Paradiso, in which she comes to him after her death and rescues him by grace and illumination. And the common thread that runs through all of them is precisely: Courtly Love, employed by a wholly orthodox Catholic, as a way of the soul to God. Beatrice is Dante's beloved, and she functions to him, from the first moment of their meeting, as an image of Christ. In her, Dante beheld the glory of the Creator; her mere presence is enough to fill him with humility, joy, and love, and he responds neither with rejection nor with idolatry, but with veneration -- that kind of mingled delight and awe that we pay to the angels and the saints. Many lovers have felt it, and it can be used as a way of seeing God; like anything can.

Using erotic love as a way of the soul has its dangers: covert narcissism, overt idolatry, foolishness, lust, impatience. They must be acknowledged, and the professed romantic must be as cognizant of these dangers, as firm in his purpose, and as faithful to the doctrines and the sacraments, as the professed religious brother or sister has to be. But none of this renders it unusable as a way of the soul, nor, I believe, should erotic love be dismissed or hedged off as something that only great souls may attempt. Greatness and sanctity come from devoting oneself to the Way,** not as pre-existing superiorities that justify the use of the Way.

Incidentally, Dante's love for Beatrice illustrates the antidote to what I believe Blanski's error to be. Both Dante and Beatrice were married to other people, yet there is no hint that Dante regarded this as at all relevant. This is not because they were adulterous and simply didn't care: there's no evidence that they had anything but the most casual contact -- he himself reports going into raptures when, after nine years of acquaintance, Beatrice condescended to say hello to him in the street one day. Dorothy Sayers, in her introduction to her translation of the Purgatorio, that this love
is not the febrile anguish of the death-Eros, in which possession forever mocks desire; nor yet the simple and affectionate exchange which does not look beyond possession. It is in fact not concerned with possession one way or the other, though it may survive loss. It is a love whose joy -- and therefore whose fulfillment -- consists in the worshipful contemplation of that which stands over and above the worshipper. True to its origins in courtly love, it finds its entire happiness in being allowed to do homage to its acknowledged superior. ... If earthly love, as such, is but a type and an overflowing of our innate (though it may be unrecognized) desire for God, then it is inevitable that there should always be something in its nature which transcends and eludes possession.***
The troubadours might have said the same; C. S. Lewis notes in The Allegory of Love that there was debate among them as to whether sexual intimacy with one's lady was the pinnacle of eros, or something beside the point. Dante took the latter view.


As ... seen here? Possibly?

The point is, eros, though it's become linked in our minds with marriage, is really an independent phenomenon. It is not incompatible with marriage; but there is nothing in Scripture, and little in history, to make either one the necessary companion or guardian of the other. The idea that eros necessarily leads to marriage or forms a good foundation for it is, in fact, about as young as words like homosexual and heterosexual. Eros is a tradition that may be entered by any loving soul who will, regardless of the object of love -- conditioned, as Dante's love was, by the same orthodox structure of ethics and economy of sacraments that governs all of Christendom. More briefly, the Romantic Way rightly considered is part of the Way as a whole, and operates on the same principles and within the same limits.

These conditions are not foreign to the tradition of erotic love. Nor is Dante a lonely example; the Cavalier and Metaphysical poets of seventeenth century England were exponents of the same in their own milieu of royalism and romanticism. Poets like John Donne and Richard Lovelace knew well how to combine eroticism with religious devotion, and the divided tongues of fire that we call Baroque art exhibit this synthesis magnificently.

Does this open to door to the possibility of a homoerotic devotion? I believe it does, in principle, though -- since marriage exists in its own right, independently of eros, just as eros exists independently of marriage -- marriage is still defined in its own terms, which, as a Catholic, I admit and even insist are oriented toward the family. Homoeroticism of this kind, used as a way of the soul, would be obliged to renounce sexual intimacy with the beloved. But this is no new idea. Its earliest expression in the West may be Plato's depiction of Socrates' erotic mysticism in the Symposium, and, in one form or another, it has continued, all the way down to (admittedly, sadly obscure) examples like Dunstan Thompson and Philip Trower. The notion that a love which cannot lead to marriage is intrinsically perverse, in my opinion, smacks of a baptized Freudianism that I have no truck with.

What of the Catechism's phrase that same-sex sexual desire is "intrinsically disordered," i.e. a misdirected impulse (like all sexual desire that is in itself unable to issue in life)? Well, that's true. But eros can't be reduced to the desire for sex, and, though it seems it generally does, it doesn't always produce the desire for sexual union with the beloved. I've been in love once or twice without any conscious desire to sleep with the person in question. It wasn't any less or otherwise romantic love on that account.

For eros is not primarily a way of craving, but a way of seeing; and the seen beloved is being seen in her or his archetypal goodness through the lens of erotic love. The beloved may not live up to her or his archetype of possible goodness, and the lover may in one way or another be disobedient to the heavenly vision. But the heavenly vision remains, and the heavenly vision isn't really about sex, even when it's connected to sexual desire. It is, on its minor scale, an intimation of the Beatific Vision, in which seeing is receiving and receiving is loving: None is afore, or after other; none is greater, or less than another; but the whole three Persons are coeternal together, and coequal. And the Romantic Way is defined by a maxim from the same creed: One, not by conversion of the Godhead into flesh, but by taking of that manhood into God; one altogether, not by confusion of substance, but by unity of Person. That is, the Way has not been changed in its own nature, so that the beloved is made an idol, but the Way assumes the lowers Ways into Itself, redirecting their natural courses toward a supernatural end -- so that, if we open ourselves by grace to the possibility, all roads lead to that Rome where Christ Himself is Roman.****


From Saint George and the Dragon as told by Margaret Hodges, illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman.


*I don't mean philosopher here in any technical, still less exalted, sense. I just mean a person who likes to think about how reality works and how we ought to live in it, and really that's a much commoner pastime than we sometimes realize; almost everybody does it, at least a little bit.

**I.e., to any of the specific forms of the Way into God which is God, namely Christ. The way of monastic devotion is one of these ways, and one of the most obvious due to the renunciations it involves. But the other ways, those that accent affirming the image of God in His creation (rather than accenting the distinction of substance between God and His creation), are nonetheless the Way.

***Introduction to Sayers' translation of the Purgatorio, p. 43.

****Dante's Purgatorio XXXII.102.