October 1, 2017
A few days ago, we marked the feastday of St. Jerome, one of the great Latin Fathers of the Church, and the Father of Christian Hospitality. And now I am re-reading McCullough’s biography of similar American figure, John Adams. Between the two, I feel a call to clarify and re-state my sense of where we are in history, and what I am supposed to do about it.
The nation is divided, left against right, with bitterness. And the Church is similarly divided, although it is difficult to delineate the divide.
In my thinking, the divide is captured by Trump. In my thinking, the role of the Church in this time of division is to unite, and this role is personified and exemplified by Pope Francis.
My own work in the midst of these tangles: I had a role in developing pro-life nonviolence, and I am now working to build/encourage/maintain a dialogue between pro-life activists and pro-immigration activists.
It strikes me as a cosmic joke that I should find myself talking about chastity (pro-life) and patience (pro-immigration) and civility (fostering dialogue). These are virtues I admire from a great distance. I understand lust and anger and sloppy laziness (the opposite of dialogue) from the inside. (For clarity, via contrast: I can denounce the pursuit of money and power with the best denunciators, but I know those sins from outside.) But wry jokes aside, I think I am working where I belong.
For example …
The problem with lust isn’t what you see (boobs, for example), but what you don’t see (brains, for example). I don’t know how to un-see beauty; you can’t decide and then go blind. But I do know how to decide firmly and effectively to see more beauty – in eyes, in actions, in loyalty, in courage. Solzhenitsyn set out to fight the Soviet empire – not with truth, which was hopeless, because his nation was choked with lies – nor with goodness, which was hopeless, because his nation had been brutalized – but with beauty – because the love of beauty can’t be stamped out. Okay: He wants to write about beauty. And then he writes “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.” That’s not an obvious decision; Siberian prison camps are not generally the common vacation spot for devotees of beauty. Did Solzhenitsyn get distracted? No, not at all. The courage, simplicity, and loyalty of the prisoners was deeply beautiful.
So I know something about chastity. See more, not less.
Can Solzhenitsyn’s insight may help me understand how people can think they are following the teaching of the Church, truly think they are free of bigotry and racism – and yet feel free to slam the nation’s doors in the faces of refugees? I am not sure, but I think so.
I don’t find hospitality hard at all. I enjoy new faces, new customs, new approaches. When I meet a stranger, I am confident – unthinkingly helplessly innocently confident – that this will be delightful, sooner or later. So I don’t have an instinctive emotional handle on the difficulties that many people have when they meet strangers. But maybe I can sneak up on the problem, by analogy. I’m not blinded by tangled beards or dark skin, not repulsed by the smell of kimchi or unfamiliar body odors, not disturbed by eruptions of languages I don’t understand even when the speaker is shouting angrily. But I can be blinded – or distracted, at minimum – by boobs and buns, perfume, and sweet words. I do indeed know what it means to struggle to see the humanity of a child of God – although the struggle for chastity and the struggle for hospitality are superficially different.
I think I understand the struggle a little, and maybe I know a little about what works. I remember when I spoke to my spiritual director about watching people receive communion. It’s standard to quiet your heart and focus on the Lord’s entry into the heart of the heart at communion. But I was struggling with chastity and wanted to do something else – not instead, but as well. I wanted to watch people receive the Eucharist – watch, and let the Lord speak to me about their beauty, one by one, every single person who came up. I’m not saying that’s a great idea, or even a good idea for everyone – but that’s what I did, and I thought it was a good idea for me.
If we define our terms narrowly and legalistically, I have been faithful to my wife throughout our marriage. But Jesus said two shocking things about fidelity – not one, but two. He said that divorce and re-marriage is adultery: that statement has been dissected and argued and gnawed for centuries. But he also said that if you look at a woman with lust, you have already committed adultery with her “in your heart.” (Um: that’s Matthew 5:28.) Somehow, that statement doesn’t turn into extensive legal battles. What are the differences between the two stiff assertions?
One difference is that many people feel confident that in the first situation, the data is objective and observable, so we can judge rightly without reference to the one who alone can judge the heart. Since the sin is observable (mostly – at least, you can see who’s living with whom, without being a peeping Tom), it seems possible to claim some knowledge about who is living in sin – and who should therefore not receive communion. The second, by contrast, is out of sight – is explicitly a matter that occurs in the heart.
But what’s the sin? Adultery or scandal? Why does it make any difference whether the sin is visible (not public, mind you, just more or less maybe perhaps visible)?
It seems to me that people over on the left, who are deeply concerned about social sins like war and discrimination and inhospitality think about reconciliation in ways that are not restricted to legal definitions and strict innocence and guilt. The route to freedom from massive social evils is solidarity with the victims of the evil. One reason (one, just one) to struggle toward solidarity with oppressed people is that it’s an expression of contrition. But this contrition is not a morbid sense of shame; it’s a longing for freedom.
Lawyers have latched onto the Lord’s words about divorce and remarriage. Much of what these lawyers say baffles me. One piece of my bafflement arises from the Lord’s other remark, about sins in the heart. My response to those words is not captured in a way I recognize by the lawyers; it’s not about guilt. Yes, there’s sin, and yes, I plead guilty. True true, I guess, but this guilt issue is so far off center it’s almost unrecognizable. I long for freedom, and I ask for the Lord for the gift of freedom. I don’t want to see less skin; I want to see more heart.
So I find myself responding to personal sins in the same way social justice Catholics respond to social evils. I long for freedom. You don’t have to sell me on freedom; I’m sold. Tell me how to get there!