Thursday, April 26, 2012

WHAT A RESURRECTION REALLY FEELS LIKE: Some thoughts about a particular moment in philosophical and spiritual struggle where many people seem to get kind of stalled. I hope I can write about this without sounding like I think this describes everyone who considers himself or herself to be seeking and not finding. This is more like, "What I describe here may resonate with some of you," not, "I know why you haven't Seen the Light yet."

So: Sometimes, especially when very philosophically-minded people talk about God or their hypothetical future-tense conversion, I think they may be confusing faith and spiritual consolation. They talk as if they accept the Catholic (I feel like I mostly see this with Catholic-symps) anthropology, the Catholic view of human nature and purpose. They talk, in fact, as if they're pretty sure that the Catholic picture of human life would explain and add to their understanding of the world in a way which no merely secular philosophy could match. And yet they don't "have faith," which, the more they talk about it, sounds like it means that they haven't had a direct experience of God's presence. They haven't had an encounter with the living God, at least not when they could recognize Him. So they are stuck, wandering around with this kind of zombie worldview, thinking maybe it will be brought fully to life one day by a bolt of God-lightning.

But a felt sense of God's close, tender, sublime presence isn't faith. I think the Catholic jargon for it is spiritual consolation, but I'm certainly open to correction there! A sense of total abandonment by God, total aloneness, is entirely compatible with unflinching faith. So is spiritual anomie or boredom or simple anticipation of a more visceral encounter with God.

I'd say that if you accept the Catholic anthropology, and you accept that if there is no God that anthropology doesn't make sense, then you believe in God, even if you've never experienced anything you recognize as His presence.

One difficulty, of course, is that Catholicism, or any actual existing Christian tradition rather than the Buddy Jesus I make up in my head, is an ornate, shaggy, thoroughly weird religion. Because the Church corrects everyone, even the saints, She doesn't fit entirely into anyone's preexisting moral beliefs. So you may believe what you consider to be the biggest elements of the Catholic anthropology but not all the details, or you may entirely accept some major aspects of that anthropology and reject others. I think the goal then is to figure out which parts of your worldview do in fact require God, if any, and go forward from there.

A related difficulty is that reason and introspection necessarily intertwine here, because you're often trying to figure out which of two or more alternatives you believe in most. To take an obvious example, I had to ask myself, in converting, whether I was more sure that gay sex was morally neutral or that the Catholic Church can teach authoritatively on matters of sexuality. Bizarrely, I was more sure of the second thing!, and so I accepted the Church's teaching even though I didn't (and often still don't) understand it. On a less brass-tacks level, you might be asking yourself whether you're more sure of your God-requiring anthropology, or that God doesn't exist. If you're more sure that God doesn't exist, something is askew in your worldview. Here's George Orwell on this very dilemma, though he tries to handwave it because for once he's insufficiently hardcore.

If you do this introspection and find yourself shying away from an anthropology (or metaphysics, etc) you thought you held really firmly, that may be a sign of fear of commitment. It might not! You'll know your own motives much better than I will. But I do think there's a certain attraction in being always almost Christian: always Quizás Quizás Quizás.

I should note that this isn't how I personally became Catholic. I did a lot of this "working on my underlying worldview through philosophy until I realized that the Catholic Church was scarily plausible," and then I prayed for a couple of weeks, and then I had, in fact, a strange and tipsy spiritual experience which was essentially an encounter with God the Creator. I had a felt experience of objects in the world as words spoken by God. This was what I needed in order to get serious about starting RCIA. It was a fairly ramshackle and humiliating spiritual encounter (probably past the legal BAC, going all T.S. Eliot over a stain on a Yale bathroom wall) but it was an experience of the created world as infused with God's presence.

So I do know that faith is more like a spectrum than an on-off switch, and someone can be moving toward deeper faith due to philosophy while still hanging back from full commitment because of uncertainty and a lack of felt experience of God. That's basically what I did for a time. But I want to clarify that you can have genuine faith even in the absence of an "encounter"-like experience. I mean, your thoughts are also things you experience! Your practice of philosophy is experience. God may be encountering you through your friends (since philosophy is always best practiced among friends) rather than burning a bush at you or something. Let yourself believe what you believe, even if you don't feel like a Christian.

To close us out, here's a poem by Denise Levertov, which I think speaks to the situation. Via Wesley Hill.
O TELL ME THE TRUTH ABOUT LOVE: I find that a lot of people, both gay and not, ask me questions which boil down to, "How should I understand gay relationships which are obviously loving?" This can be phrased as, "How do you feel, as a Catholic, about my relationship with my boyfriend?" (although I don't know why my personal feelings should really matter!) or "How should I view my brother's partner?" or, something I addressed in that Commonweal piece, "How should I understand the love which was a part of the gay relationships I had before becoming Catholic?"

The first thing I think of with this question is the quotation I posted last week, in which Jesus, looking at the rich young man, loved him. If we approach our own gay (meaning, here, sexually-active) relationships or those of others with this look of love, a love which is both personal and challenging, what do we find?

What we find will be different for different relationships. But here are some thoughts from my Commonweal piece:
Loving one another can be an echo of the love we receive from God; it can be the child of that love; it can be preparation for our own awestruck love of God. (I would argue that my erotic and romantic love of women has been all three of those things, at different times.)
I went on to say, "But our human experience, including our erotic experience, cannot be a replacement for the divine revelation preserved by the church. We must be careful not to let it become a counternarrative or a counter-Scripture." A chaste love relationship founded on love of Christ, perhaps even adorned with promises like the ones described here and here, is even more beautiful and sublime than the best sexually-active gay relationship. Perhaps you're being called to this other person because he or she is a part of your life's vocation, in which case chastity will exalt your relationship, not diminish it. Perhaps not--perhaps you're being called to hospitality, service, searing devotion to God, a radical vulnerability and availability made possible precisely by your lack of obligations to partner or children. Note that neither of these alternatives is easy! "Exalted" doesn't exactly imply "easier," and sublimity is almost the opposite of satisfaction--accepting one of these alternatives will probably increase most people's sense of difficulty, their sense of struggle or need for surrender to God. But we don't get to choose how God calls us; we only choose how we respond to that call.
LITTLE SHIVERS: Short movie reviews, mostly of B-horror.

Pontypool: Canadian town's destruction by zombie virus chronicled by its weird local radio station. This does a really good job at making the threat scary without showing you too much. If you like the high-concept summary, "Language is a virus which makes people zombies," you will probably like this; if the premise leaves you cold I'm not sure the movie will work for you. I really liked it. The one jarring moment is the racist Lawrence of Arabia adaptation by local schoolchildren (?). I could come up with some reason for this--art can drive us apart and strengthen our worst impulses--but that seems too heavy, so really, I just don't know why that was there.

The Howling: Ultra-sleazy '80s flick about werewolves at a hippie resort. Does exactly what it says on the tin, plus extra sleaze. Sort of awesome in an "I don't actually recommend this" way.

Oleanna: David Mamet, a college parable which is about feminism/political correctness on the surface, class and how education and language reify power disparities underneath. (Language is the villain again!) When you describe it like that it sounds like something I'd like, but the two characters are both horribly grating and one-note, and the actors recite lines rather than finding a way to inhabit Mamet's aggressively-stylized dialogue.

The Dark Hours and Creep: I'm linking these two for reasons I'll get to in a moment. At first glance they seem pretty different. The Dark Hours is a stylized, very art-directed home-invasion horror/psychological thriller, very slightly comparable to Black Swan if that's a recommendation for you, starring actors I'd never seen before. Kindertrauma reviewed it here. Creep is a movie about some kind of killer or creature living in the London subway system, with basically normal visuals, starring Franka Potente.

Both movies' protagonists are privileged white women whose social/class power over other characters becomes a major issue in the narrative. Both women are shown from the beginning in fairly unflattering moral lights: Creep's buzzy city chick is a bit self-centered, whereas The Dark Hours' psychiatrist is openly cruel and arrogant.

Creep gives you glimpses of working-class, hard-luck, or homeless characters, and gestures at their backstories in ways which make them seem like they could be interesting. But the movie itself really doesn't seem to care about them. They exist basically as props in the main character's journey... which, since it's a journey where she gets to learn about How the Other Half Lives, means that the movie (and especially its big ending visual) comes across as fairly cheap and self-praising. Poor people exist to teach rich girls life lessons about how poor people exist!

The Dark Hours forces a much tighter audience identification with its main character, not only by keeping us firmly within her POV but by constantly challenging us to figure out which of her distorted perceptions is closest to reality. That's part of what made it work much better for me than Creep. It's also crueler to her--she doesn't learn her lesson--and the psych patients under her control have their own agency instead of just reacting to her decisions. (I mean, they appear to have agency, anyway. Like I said, you can rarely be sure what is real.) This movie was tense and very sad, and succeeded in making me care about its awful main character. You can also take it--especially the final "game" between the doctor and one of her patients--as a ferocious satire on psychiatry; or, conversely, as a window into how healing and honesty can look like brutal, absurd nonsense to a damaged mind. It's a movie which works on a lot of levels, the simple ones of fear and visual interest and the complex ones of shifting meanings.
Recently I asked my sober priest friend Monsignor Richey how I'd know if I was making any spiritual progress. The pious urge to pray many hours a day? I was thinking. Guru status? He pondered for a moment. "If crazy people aren't afraid to come up to you and talk... that's a pretty good sign," he said.
--Heather King, Parched

Wednesday, April 25, 2012


Paulina was surprised. "Why, but you too are clinging to a straw! A couple of weeks ago, you explained to me at great length that you were absolutely sure to win at roulette, and then you rushed away because I stared at you as if you were insane. Or perhaps you were joking then? No, I remember very clearly that you were absolutely serious, and it didn't sound like a joke at all."

"That's true," I said dreamily. "Even now, I am still convinced I'll win. ..."
--Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Gambler, tr. Andrew R. MacAndrew

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

CATCHING UP: Three articles I wrote have been published recently! I reviewed Adam and Eve After the Pill: Paradoxes of the Sexual Revolution; also reviewed a really good novel, The Inverted Forest (link is subscribers-only for now); and reviewed two shows of war photography (also subscribers-only). Definitely recommend the photography--at the Corcoran through May 20--and The Inverted Forest.
LOST IN THE COSMO: Bracketing any questions about the actual tv show "Girls," I note that this review basically says, "The great thing about this show is that it treats sex as banal! The bad thing about this show is that the women aren't happy."
(I sometimes think of Ezra as the Yosemite Sam of poetry. "Ya varmits, I want ya to read Ovid and Dante." I think of T. S. Eliot of the Elmer Fudd. "Be vewy, vewy quiet, I'm saving Western Civilization. Heh, heh, heh."

--here (via Jesse W again?)
GIGER BAR. Awesome. Via Jesse Walker, I think.
"THE SIX BIGGEST FEARS OF PEOPLE WHO ARE BAD WITH KIDS." Oh hey, someone else who thinks children are great but does not actually want to hold your baby!
I STILL LIKE "THE HAGGIS AND THE FEAR" BEST! But Vicki Boykis's "pessimist's guide to Scotland" is now available as an e-book. Go check it out!
Listening to a sermon on Mark 10 yesterday, I was struck by a juxtaposition in Jesus' encounter with the rich, young ruler in Mark 10:17-31. Specifically, after the young ruler has announced--quite sincerely, I think--that he has kept all the commandments from his youth, Mark tells us in his typically direct language:

Jesus, looking at him, loved him...

(more, although I was struck primarily just by this image of the look of love; link probably via Wesley Hill?)
"GRITTY PHOTOS OF JAPAN'S RED-LIGHT AND COMMERCIAL DISTRICT." (What, the one red-light district in all of Japan? It's Shinjuku in the '60s-'80s.)
"ALLAN BLOOM'S GUIDE TO COLLEGE." I did not expect the New Yorker to publish the sharpest thing I've read so far about the Closing of the American Mind anniversary!
For kids entering college fully trained in this liturgy of prudence and niceness, which I am anxiously imparting to my own young children, it’s not Bloom’s censoriousness they will resist. It’s his decadence.


Also, this phrasing is just self-parodically Straussian: "I’m not a Straussian, but I was taught by Straussians and modelled my classroom methods on theirs...."
MOUNTAIN GOATS AND ANONYMOUS 4. I really, really love some of the new songs. Early favorites are "Tribe of the Horned Heart" and (perhaps predictably) "Lakeside View Apartments Suite." Link is probably via Flavorwire.
"Hold it for me," he said quietly, in English.

Christina knew that her mother couldn't see them from the other room--and she didn't need to unfold the handkerchief to know that it was wrapped around the little statue, for she could feel the cold of the stone through the linen.

She gave him a quizzical glance, for earlier he had said that he carried the thing around with him now--and he had told her not to touch it. His expression was impossible to read behind his thick lenses, though, so she nodded and tucked it into the pocket of her frock and went back to her sketching.

But her rabbit began to go wrong under her darting pencil--the hind legs and back seemed broken now, and the creature's face began to take on a human-like expression that somehow expressed both scorn and pleading--and when she heard her brother Gabriel gasp at the sight of it, she crumpled the paper.

--Tim Powers, Hide Me Among the Graves. Tim Powers + Christina Rossetti = yes please.

Monday, April 09, 2012

CULTURAL BIAS IN INTELLIGENCE TESTING. You have to put up with some obvious leftist bias (e.g. attributing to Western "acquisitiveness" what seems at least equally attributable to social trust) and I admit I already agreed with the basic point this site is making. But the alternative intelligence mini-tests are intriguing and a memorable way to make an important point.
SPEAKING OF LATE LINKS: Make your Easter eggs look like your dad in the '70s! Via Unequally Yoked.
THIS IS HOLY THURSDAY, BUT I DIDN'T POST IT IN TIME. Where did I find it? Via Wesley again? Anyway I really like it.
Let none lament his failings,
forgiveness has risen from the tomb.
Let none fear death,
for the death of the Savior has set us free.

--St John Chrysostom, via Wesley Hill

...and speaking of WH and Easter, this made me laugh, perhaps inappropriately.

Thursday, April 05, 2012

"ANOTHER VERY GRITTY DISPLAY HERE": I meant to post this on his actual birthday, March 30, but: Happy birthday, Christopher Bowman. May your afterlife be as lyrical as "Maria" and as uninhibited as "Woolly Bully."

"The Americans never disappoint their American fans...."
I spot Chad a few minutes later, a dark-eyed waif on the sidewalk. It's been three weeks he's been gone, and he's lost so much weight. Everything about him looks burnt-out, the way refugees on TV look with farms smoking behind them: translucent skin, an uncertain balance something like shellshock. I notice he's wearing a necklace, one he wasn't wearing last time. A ring and a small cross.

I tell the driver, "That's him."

The bus slows, but the doors don't open.

"Five hundred dollar fine!" the driver shouts.


"Five hundred dollar fine for entering or exiting the vehicle at..." (here I have no idea what he says) "...designated stopping point."

"So he can get on at the stop?"

"Five hundred dollar fine!"

Chad studies me through the plexiglass of the bus's doors. Perplexed, panicky from lack of sleep, obviously trying not to show it. I do my best to motion him down the road, try to mouth, "wait there." The yellow and black paint of the stop is at just such an angle I can't point at it through the doors. I keep pointing as the bus keeps moving. It stops 20 feet away; the doors hiss open.

"Can he get on here?"

"Designated stopping point!"

Chad reaches the stop a few seconds after the bus. I can't think of anything to say but, "Hey."

We collapse into seats next to each other, he with a bag over each shoulder. His lips taste like seawater; his mouth is dry. I later learn that he took a shot, his last shot, in the bathroom at Dulles. This is quite valuable, actually, seeing what he looks like still high, on the tail-end of high -- it's a look I've yet to see on him again.

"I parked at the wrong gate," I explain. "We have to go back around."

He seems euphoric to just be able to rest.

"12 GREAT SMALL PRESS BOOKS." Some intriguing finds here.
A SWEET KID stands in a snowfall and talks about same-sex attraction and sacrifice for Christ. I like especially the shy little sidelong glances he sneaks toward the crucifix, taking encouragement from the sight of it. Via Mark Shea.
"YOU'RE NO BOTHER TO ME AT ALL." Via Jesse Walker.