A few weeks back, I spoke of a young man who had written me several times with the following concern:
“You seem to avoid some of the tense battles among Catholics on left and right. Issues like the Latin Mass, abortion in the health care bill, what the Church did, should have done in regards to sex abuse scandal, etc. Do you think the hot button issues of the day are important for the average Catholic to engage in and fret about? I have and it’s making me so upset, angry, stressed, etc. I wonder if I am losing my focus on the real spiritual battle?
Should I be e-mailing, discussing, lobbying, debating people, friends, family on the wrongness say of abortion or gay marriage or the culture of death, etc. or should I be inside a church praying, doing small acts of penance, works of mercy that don’t seem to amount to much while the whole world keeps moving in the wrong direction…?”
In particular, this guy had spoken of his frustration with Facebook, in which he apparently gets involved in doctrinal discussions, sees it as his duty to take a stand, and tries to set people straight, at which point they more or less turn on him.
My response had basically been: If the discussions frustrate you, DON’T ENGAGE IN THEM. Figure out what you’re for, not what you’re against. The road to Christ is lonely, long, and almost unbelievably rocky, and though it takes place in community, we have to also walk it alone, often in great anguish and distress, often for decades if not our whole lives.
But obviously a whole movement is afoot among young people in the Church—which they unfortunately learn from us older people—that is based on vitriol, grandstanding, contempt, finger-pointing, and the drive to “win,” because this earnest young seeker wrote me several more times expressing his frustration. So by way of a kind of open letter, I thought I would try to make it a little clearer why I “avoid some of the tense battles among Catholics on left and right.”
The first thing to keep in mind is that following Christ is not a career move. The mark of authentic conversion is that it costs you something, not that it gains you something. So if you’re trying to become, say, a “pro-life” or an anti-war or a convert celebrity, that is something, but it is not Christianity. That is to bring the world into the temple; that is to be a money-changer in the temple: to make a name for yourself, to cultivate a reputation, to strive for notoriety based not on your love, but on your “views.” Both the right and the left are simply variations on “the world” in which the goal is power, prestige, efficiency, triumph, and the goal is to shame or bully other people into changing without changing one iota yourself. The Catholic media that traffic in this sort of incessant “opinion”-driven “discussion” seem to me to have very little, if anything, to do with Christ. Keep your own side of the street clean and pray–pray for us all–is more my idea.
To write some snarky “opinion” doesn’t cost anything. That’s cheap grace. Nothing infuriated or repulsed or grieved Christ more. The people who wear their five-inch aborted-fetus buttons, to take one of the more unfortunate examples of the religious right, remind me of the Pharisees who prayed loudly on the streetcorners and wore their phylacteries long. “We care,” they proclaim; they insist. ‘We care more than you do. We’re more outraged than you are. You’re wrong and we’re right.”
I’ve had abortions. I feel deeply that abortion is wrong. I have gone on record and I will go on record again as saying I believe abortion is deeply wrong. But the reason abortion is wrong is that it’s a failure of love, and if you’re not converted by the sight of an actual child, you’re certainly not going to be converted by seeing an aborted fetus; just as, if you’re not converted by Christ’s person, teachings and life, you’re not going to be converted by watching a fetishistically violent film of his crucifixion.
So I don’t show my sorrow by wearing a button of an aborted fetus—or actually any fetus—who by the way could not possibly have been in a position to give his or her consent to be plastered all over my chest in order to make a statement about my political/religious views.
I show my sorrow by changing my life. I show that I care by changing my life. By looking at my own sexual baggage, wounds, behavior; by looking at the ways I use and discard people as objects; by ferreting out my resentments, fears, character defects; by a more or less constant examination of conscience; by sharing those things with another human being—a spiritual director, a confessor—and trying to do better, knowing I am mostly bound to fail. The spiritual path doesn’t consist, in other words, in pointing out to others the ways they might be contributing to the suffering of the world, but in searching out the ways I am. That’s why I steer clear of the religious right.
The religious left is all about faux love.” Two gay people “marry,” that’s supposedly an increase of love. Two people sleep together to see if they’re compatible, thereby (supposedly) saving the world from a ton of unhappy marriages: that’s an increase in love, the thinking goes. But it’s the “love” that urges people to take a shortcut to avoid suffering. It’s the “love” that says I think you’re too delicate to face and live out the truth. I don’t think you’re strong enough, or mature enough, to take in the whole picture, to hold the full tension of the suffering of the world before you; to admit that every time you take the shortcut, you are contributing to that suffering, not relieving it. So if a kid you conceive might be “unwanted”: abort it. If an old person strikes you as no longer serving any “useful purpose”: help him or her to commit suicide.
Unfortunately, the underlying idea, if you follow it through, and you don’t have to follow the idea very far, is “Exterminate or annihilate people who are suffering,” because suffering always stems from or is exacerbated by a lack of love, and love is grounded in family–mother, father, if possible, children–and the holiness of sex, and the sacrament of marriage, and making our life’s work, no matter what our station, to welcome, support, rejoice in, marvel at, and support new life and all life: in charity, in integrity, in truth. Which requires sacrifice, on everybody’s part: married, single, straight, gay, young, old.
So much sacrifice, in fact, that I, for one, am way too busy to get overly exercised about whether to, say, bring back the Latin Mass, though I’m sure I would welcome such a move; or lobbying against (or for) abortion in the health care bill; or calling for reform in the hierarchy. As it is, I look at these people who are always railing against the Church (from the right and left) and think: How in any way is the Church impinging upon your freedom? How is the Church in the smallest particular preventing you from performing the works of mercy, from trying to figure out how to love your neighbor as yourself, from taking the beam out of your own eye before you take the mote out of your own eye, from not casting the first stone? Are the Papal police coming to your door and arresting you? Is Rome telling you anything other than at the last day, you will be judged by how you treated the least of these, which includes not just the unborn, or the illegal immigrant, or the prisoner on Death Row, or whoever else you’ve adopted as your cause, but the person on the other side of the fence: your “enemy”? If the Church started saying You can’t pray, you can’t go to Confession, you’re not allowed to be emotionally or sexually responsible, hate your enemy, I’d start to worry.
Instead, I’m always a little taken aback by the complete lack of affection, often within her own ranks, for the Church. To me, the Church is kind of like having an alcoholic mother: majestic one minute; engaging in some cringingly non-Christ-like behavior the next. But no matter what, she’s your Mother. No matter what, you love your mother. And the way you love her is you notice when she goes wrong, you grieve for her, you mourn for her, and then you silently resolve to help her do a little better. You don’t pretend not to see her faults and get all self-righteous and militaristic if someone attacks her—but you also don’t kick her when she’s down. I think the way we feel about the Church is very much an indication of how we feel, in our hearts, about the least of our brothers and sisters. In one of her letters, Dorothy Day quotes a priest who said, “You love God as much as you love the person you love least.” And by extension, I think we love God about as much as we love His Church…
To be a follower of Christ is to accept to hold an almost unbearable amount of tension: to accept bottomless imperfection, brokenness, woundedness; to consent to any number of extremely unpromising people and situations. But this is where things get interesting. I mean we’re given all kinds of signs to let us know when we’re onto Him, and almost the first sign is that the Way, the Truth and the Life are interesting. You start to change; that’s interesting. You forgive someone you thought it was impossible to forgive; that’s interesting. The MOST unpromising person, or situation, the seeming catastrophe, turns out in the end to have helped you along in some way you could never have imagined on your own: that’s interesting. You forego a slew of money and security in order to pursue work you’re passionate about: that’s interesting.
Listening to a bunch of people try to shout each other down, especially in the name of God, is not only corrupt and depressing, but deathly boring. I once signed up for a day of “community discussion” among a group of artists where, simply in the course of the introductions, I was attacked, twice, for being a Catholic. At the break, I simply left. Not so much because my religion had been attacked but because I knew the conversation would not be interesting. I went home and worked and had a rich, lovely day.
So to be a follower of Christ is not a career move, and it’s not a social move either. It’s not about having a bevy of supportive, admiring, we’re-all-on-the-same-team friends. I can hardly imagine anything worse for a person’s spiritual development than to be told, “Whoa, dude, that was a killer pro-life polemic!” or “You really nailed those pederast priests!” No-one, to my knowledge, has ever become a saint on the basis of his or her political views.
That’s not to say that we shouldn’t know exactly where we stand, and why. But we stand with Christ. Christ himself neither endorsed nor supported any causes. His cause was love, his cause was truth, his cause was beauty. His cause was to lay down his life for his friends. Being a follower of Christ is not about convincing, it’s about converting. And the heart you should be most concerned about converting is your own.
Here’s how, in my experience, you know you’re becoming a follower of Christ. You begin to want to be seen less, not more. You begin to want to be quieter, not louder. Knowing you’re on the right track doesn’t come from scoring points among your “friends.” Knowing you’re on the right track doesn’t come from winning useless arguments. You find yourself making tiny sacrifices. You find yourself experiencing tiny moments of joy. You find yourself mysteriously drawn to the Gospels, to Confession, to Mass.
A few years ago, I found myself in line at the confessional at a church in Atlanta, Georgia: a moment I didn’t realize would be seminal, but since then has come back to me again and again. At the time I was in a real dark night of the soul, struggling with a certain obsession, and a shattered heart, and a bunch of other difficult things. I’d tried everything I knew, I’d run out of ideas, and in desperation, I’d decided, in a kind of self-styled pilgrimage, to get in my ’96 Celica and drive from L.A. to the coast of New Hampshire, my childhood home, going to Mass every day. Every day for weeks, wherever I was, I’d been to Mass. All I knew was: Try to get close to Christ. Stay close to Christ. I’d made it to Atlanta, where my brother Joe and his wife Mimi lived, I was staying on their couch, I was physically and emotionally exhausted, and I had a deep urge to go to Confession.
It was a Friday and I looked in the Yellow Pages and found a nearby church that had Confession just before noon Mass. So I walked from my brother’s apartment down Peachtree to what turned out to be this dear, dingy little neighborhood church, and I found myself standing in line with all these not-very-prosperous-looking gay guys. I didn’t know what they were about to confess, but I knew they were human, and like me, had a body, a heart, a will, a longing to be loved, to love, to be good. I knew they were as weak and fragile as me; as prone to succumb to temptation as me; that, like me, they probably approached Confession with a mixture of humility, reverence and dread. I’m a citizen of the 21st century. I’d seen the billboards; I knew the score. I did not need to be told how futile, how pathetic, how meager, how seemingly useless it was to stand in a shabby church and sit before an overworked priest, as I did a few minutes later, and tell him the ways I was broken, and then go out to kneel in a pew behind an aging drag queen and say three Hail Marys and a prayer for peace.
But we do not come as people who strive for efficiency, for results, to swagger and preen and lord it over the rest of the world. We come as sinners. We come as beggars. We come hungering and thirsting. We come: the lame, the blind, the deaf, the halt, the leprous, the demoniacs, the desperate, the lost, the lonely. We don’t have our political views to give each other; we have Christ. We don’t have convincing arguments; we have our wounds, our holy longing, our groping in the dark. We don’t have clever op-eds; we have our bodies, our puny love, our lurching, guaranteed-to-fall-short striving for purity.
And I’m not sure I have ever felt so close to the heart of reality, so certain of my seemingly utterly ineffective and irrelevant faith, so proud to be a member of the human race as I was that afternoon, standing in line with my brothers in Christ–aching, hoping, against all odds trusting–at that dingy church. If I did not believe that to stand in line at that confessional was in some sense saving the world, I would blow my brains out. Because to believe that is to believe in the Resurrection. And if Christ did not live, if he did not vanquish death, there would be no reason, no possible way to go on.
So we walk alone, and yet we walk with Christ, and that means we walk with, are inextricably bound to, every other human being who lives now, ever has lived, and ever will live. To believe that we are all deeply, intricately connected, and that our actions have eternal consequences, is to operate from an entirely different basis than politics. We operate from a basis of redemptive suffering, which was what MLK, Jr., operated from and why he was assassinated. It was why Christ was tortured to death. Redemptive suffering subverts every possible order. It upsets people terribly. It enrages and unsettles. It’s radical: gets to the root of. We like to think of ourselves as radical but when push comes to shove, we’re not radical at all. We’re lost sheep. We want things to be pleasant. We want to be “ok.”
|ST. TERESIA BENEDICTA OF THE CROSS
GERMAN-JEWISH PHILOSOPHER, NUN, MARTRY
DIED IN THE GAS CHAMBER AT AUSCHWITZ
But to quietly, more or less hiddenly, consecrate our entire selves to God and the teachings of the Church is an entirely different matter. That is why we go to Confession. That is why we struggle to refrain from our lust, our pettiness, our hardness of heart, our compulsive, frustrated desire for fame. That is how I stand shoulder-to-shoulder with my gay brothers and sisters, with the unborn, with the prisoners on Death Row, the sick and suffering, my next-door neighbor and his irritating music that makes me want to kill him: in line at the confessional, on my knees at Mass, and then by bringing what I experience there, what I am given there, out to the world. We strive for purity because someone else needs us to be pure. We strive for love because God loved the world so much that He gave us His only-begotten son. We strive for charity because, as Léon Bloy wrote in Pilgrim of the Absolute, “A charitable act, an impulse of real pity sings for him the divine praises, from the time of Adam to the end of the ages; it cures the sick, consoles those in despair, calms storms, ransoms prisoners, converts the infidel and protects mankind.”
AUSTRIAN CONSCIENTIOUS OBJECTOR
CONDEMNED TO DEATH BY BEHEADING FOR REFUSING TO FIGHT ON BEHALF
OF THE NAZIS
|DIETRICH BONHOEFFER, GERMAN THEOLOGIAN
HANGED BY THE GESTAPO FOR A FAILED ATTEMPT TO
“The saint has no “fads” and you may live in the same house with him and never find out that he is not a sinner like yourself, unless you rely on negative proofs, or obtrude lax ideas upon him and so provoke him to silence. He may impress you, indeed, by his harmlessness and imperturbable good temper, and probably by some lack of appreciation of modern humor, and ignorance of some things which men are expected to know, and by never seeming to have much use for his time when it can be of any service to you; but, on the whole, he will give you an agreeable impression of general inferiority to yourself. You must not, however, presume upon this inferiority so far as to offer him any affront, for he will be sure to answer you with some quiet and unexpected remark, showing a presence of mind–arising, I suppose, from the presence of God–which will make you feel that you have struck rock and only shaken your own shoulder. If you compel him to speak about religion…he will mostly likely dwell with reiteration on commonplaces with which you were perfectly well acquainted before you were twelve years old; but you must make allowance for him, and remember that the knowledge which is to you a surface with no depth is to him a solid…I have known two or three such persons, and I declare that, but for the peculiar line of psychological research to which I am addicted, and hints from others in some degree akin to these men, I should never have guessed that they were any wiser or better than myself, or any other ordinary man of the world with a prudent regard for the common proprieties. I once asked a person, more learned than I am in such matters, to tell me what was the real difference. The reply was that the saint does everything that any other decent person does, only somewhat better and with a totally different motive.”
—Coventry Patmore, The Rod, the Root and the Flower
Strive to be that kind of person.
If you’re wondering whether you’re being called to witness, consider how eager you’d be to “witness” if you stood to get killed for it: as Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Edith Stein, and St. Maximilian Kolbe and so many others have been.
True witness is life-and-death. So write this in blood, on your heart:
“To be a witness does not consist in engaging in propaganda or even in stirring people up, but in being a living mystery; it means to live in such a way that one’s life would not make sense if God did not exist.”
—Cardinal Emmanuel Célestin Suhard, Archbishop of Paris 1940-1949