Visigoths At Civilization’s Gates
But despite the risks and inconvenience, not to mention the cost to the state involved in treating a life-long infection (on average around 3,000 euros a month per infectee), many barebackers consciously contract the disease or see it as simply a matter of time before they will belong to the HIV community and therefore be able to have even wilder unprotected sex with other infected men.
That’s $3,500 per month, or $42,000 per year in cost to taxpayers to keep them from dying of AIDS and sexually active.
As part of the story, the reporter interviews a gay HIV+ prostitute who talks about the “fetish” of seeking to become infected. Excerpt:
Is that a common motivation to get infected?
Very often, yes. I see that on these sites a lot. Young, negative guys writing to me, all like “Come on, poz me!” So I usually play a game with them and start talking to them, to find out why they want it and why they think it’s so great or why it turns them on so much. And after a while I let the cat out of the bag.
What do you say to them?
I tell them I have been positive for 12 years now and that it’s not fun going to check-ups all the time, never knowing if you‘ve caught any additional viruses. HIV isn’t like having the flu that’s gone in two weeks. You’ll have the virus for the rest of your life, living in your body. When you look at people who have had it for a while, you can always tell. Then it’s usually on to drugs. Lots of them give themselves up and move from one darkroom to the next. That’s not a normal life anymore. It’s all about vegetating.
What do they say when you ask why they do it?
“I want to be part of it. I want the thrill. I want to have as much [semen] as I can. I don’t like rubbers.” It seems like the AIDS enlightenment missed these people.
How old are these guys?
Some guys are 17 or 18. Sometimes they’re older, like they should really know better.
So those are the effects of one form of barbarism. In Paris, I met and had dinner one night with a young Catholic man who is active in Courage, the Roman Catholic ministry for gays and lesbians who wish to live chastely, in obedience to the church’s teaching. His personal testimony is very moving. There is hope in the faith, hope for deliverance from this culture of death, but you have to look hard for it — and at times past the bad teaching example of the church’s own priests (for example here and here).
“When I was at school there were problems with webcams and sex chats and msn messenger.
“But I can’t remember boys talking about girls like this.
“I really don’t know why it’s spiralled.
“I think we can blame a lot of things on the porn industry, we can blame social media and the ease of access.
“But they’re an infected generation that no longer sees the gravitas of sex.”
Here are the effects of another barbarian scourge among us today. The NYT reports from Concord, NH:
In the state morgue here, in the industrial maze of a hospital basement, Dr. Thomas A. Andrew was slicing through the lung of a 36-year-old woman when white foam seeped out onto the autopsy table.
Foam in the lungs is a sign of acute intoxication caused by an opioid. So is a swollen brain, which she also had. But Dr. Andrew, the chief medical examiner of New Hampshire, would not be certain of the cause of death until he could rule out other causes, like a brain aneurysm or foul play, and until after the woman’s blood tests had come back.
With the nation snared in what the government says is the worst drug epidemic in its history, routine autopsies like this one, which take more than two hours, are overtaxing medical examiners everywhere.
“It’s almost as if the Visigoths are at the gates, and the gates are starting to crumble,” Dr. Andrew said. “I’m not an alarmist by nature, but this is not overhyped. It has completely overwhelmed us.”
As Dr. Andrew, an energetic man of 60 who, with his close-cropped gray beard, resembles the actor Richard Dreyfuss, has watched the drug toll mount, he is no longer content simply to catalog it. He wants to try, in his own small way, to stop it.
After laboring here as the chief forensic pathologist for two decades, exploring the mysteries of the dead, he retired last month to explore the mysteries of the soul. In a sharp career turn, he is entering a seminary program to pursue a divinity degree, and ultimately plans to minister to young people to stay away from drugs.
“After seeing thousands of sudden, unexpected or violent deaths,” Dr. Andrew said, “I have found it impossible not to ponder the spiritual dimension of these events for both the deceased and especially those left behind.”
Read the whole thing. Staggering. The doctor rightly diagnoses that God is ultimately the only answer here. As does the lay Courage member in Paris, whose name I am not going to share, because he does his ministry quietly, within his parish.
Reading Dr. Andrew’s story put me in mind of my Orthodox priest friend Father Matthew Harrington, who was a police officer working a beat when all the suffering and injustice he dealt with on a daily basis burned him out. This excerpt from my book How Dante Can Save Your Life tells that story:
St. John the Theologian is Father Matthew’s first parish. When Father Seraphim Bell, a Walla Walla, Washington, priest who is Father Matthew’s own spiritual father, dispatched the newly ordained Matthew to us, he told me that the former police officer was a naturally gifted pastor “because he has suffered.”
After we had known each other a while, I asked Father Matthew what Father Seraphim had meant by that. I knew that Father Matthew had been raised by his grandparents and had never known his father. And I knew that he had been a police officer. One afternoon, sitting alone with him in the fellowship hall, I asked him to tell me his story.
“I was a very capable police officer, but I always felt like I was being punished for doing my job,” he said, squaring his shoulders under his black cassock. “I would arrest some city bigwig for drunk driving, and my boss would fuss at me. Why? It really aggravated a sense in me of deep mistrust of authority.
“And there were other things that are normal in police work but that started to get to me. I would think, ‘Why did that guy try to kill me? Why couldn’t I have saved that person?’ As I progressed in police work, I felt more and more of a sense of being orphaned. It all came out of self-pity, but those are real, hard emotions that being a cop coughed up.”
“Tell me about the breaking point,” I said.
“It was the second-to-last call I ever took,” he told me. “It was a little girl. She lived right by a big aqueduct, and fell in and drowned. I never saw her body, but by then I was so emotionally fragile that the pictures by themselves shook up me up pretty bad. She had on these pink sandals with flowers on them.
“That was a Saturday. The next morning, I went to liturgy, and in front of me was a little girl wearing the exact same shoes,” he continued. “I came undone. That was the end of my career. It really was. My wife knew. I knew. It was just how I navigated the exit.”
Father Matthew’s last deed as an active police officer was to chase two suspected thieves who were escaping on bicycles. They dropped their bikes and slipped away. Enraged by this, he took out his knife and cut their tires.
“Just like that,” Father Matthew said, shaking his head. “Then I realized that I had become what I was fighting. I couldn’t be a cop anymore. I talked to my chief and told him I couldn’t go on. I wasn’t a bad cop, and I wasn’t a malicious cop, but I was a suffering cop, and I needed out.”
Father Matthew and his wife, Anna, had discovered the Orthodox Church through the parish pastored by Father Seraphim. As the young police officer’s emotional life disintegrated under job pressure, the congregation held him up.
“What I thought was a strong wall cracked, and I fell apart,” the priest told me. “They didn’t judge me when they saw me bawling through vespers and liturgy, just bawling.”
“Wait,” I said. “You? You cried in front of all those people?”
Tall and stern, with a piercing gaze, Father Matthew is not the kind of man you imagine crying in public, if at all. Though he wears a cassock now (“my dress,” he snarks), this priest does not look like the sort of cleric fat-mouthing heretics would want to mess with.
“Yeah, I cried,” he said. “I was broken. I still am broken. I can’t watch war movies or anything like that. It’s a humbling experience to know that you’re in the prime of your life and you’re broken.”
Meeting Father Seraphim had made all the difference in his life. “He tells it like it is,” said Father Matthew. “He made me face myself, and all my pride and anger. Man, was I ever angry. Orthodoxy allowed me to come out of that.”
“Dante would call it a dark wood,” I said. “So is that why you became a priest?”
“I haven’t thought about it,” he said. “It was a response to the love I received from Christ through the Church. If anything, my time in the civil service showed me that the only way I could help people was to heal my own heart. I had to seek the fullness of life in Christ, to be able to see the divine light in anyone. Otherwise, all they’re getting is the blind leading the blind.”
My sins were not the sins of the gay sexual obsessives in Berlin. My sins were not the sins of drug addicts in New Hampshire. My sins weren’t the sins of Father Matthew, but most of them (the pride, the anger) were close. My sins were my sins, but sins they were, and it was only through the grace of God mediated to me through the Church that I was healed of them, and am healed a little bit more every day.
Over the weekend, in my long reflection on what I learned about the Benedict Option from my week in Paris, I spoke of my conversation with the prominent French philosopher and public intellectual Alain Finkielkraut, who sees no hope for the West, and no prospect that it will return to faith (he is himself an atheist). This despair is a theme I heard more than once from older Frenchmen, including believers.
But I also heard hope from faithful young Catholics, like the Courage member I mentioned, and like journalists and others I met. They are undeceived about the nature of our times, but they carry on as happy rebels determined to subvert what Pope Benedict XVI called “the dictatorship of relativism.” This is how I think of the Benedict Option regarding the culture war: we cannot win in a head-on attack, but we can establish cells to undermine the dominant paradigm. It is not about gaining, or regaining, power. It is about liberating the captives, as we once were ourselves.
Here, in the visage of François Esperet, a former hardcore Paris cop turned Orthodox Christian poet, is the face of Christian hope and charity. He has been called “a major discovery,” and compared to William Faulkner and Bob Dylan:
This man has seen it all — and he has seen through it, to the Light. The Force is strong with this one. I know from reading about him in the French media that he is not political. But he is in the world, working within the world. But he is not of the world.
It can be done, if you want to do it. But you have to really want to do it.
If I wanted to, I could spend all day writing a “barbarians at the gates” post, and would not lack for examples. It’s not that the world is necessarily more sinful now than it was before (though it might be). It’s rather that we have lost restraining factors. It’s hard to see where and how this ends. Philip Rieff said that ours is the only culture in history that has based itself on progressive emancipation from restraint. Ours is what Rieff called an “anti-culture, ” because it lacks what all cultures must have: the ability to bind and to restrain.
Religion — related to the Latin word religare, meaning “to bind” — is the only thing that can save us now. But nobody believes in a religion for instrumental reasons. You have to see it as true, and as the result of an encounter with the living God. If you believe your religion is true, you will change your life (Jesus, in John 14:15: “If you love me, keep my commandments.”) It’s just that simple. No half-measures in conversion. If you want to find the strength and stability to resist barbarism in all its contemporary forms, there is only one solution. The world does not see it. But some who live in the world see it, and through them, we can learn to see.
As Marco the Lombard told the pilgrim Dante, “Brother, the world is blind, and surely you come from it.” But we are not fated to live this way, in these lies! We have free will. We can resist. We can find each other, and help each other. It’s happening in Paris. It’s happening in Italy, as I’ve written. It’s happening in the US too. True, the resistance is small now, but it’s growing. When you meet others who are living it, who are living The Benedict Option, and know that you are not alone, it gives you an infusion of hope and confidence.
These past ten days in Paris did so for me. I left the world, in that having no wifi connection at the religious residence hall where I was staying, and very little time to spend at Starbucks using its wifi, I spent my days on retreat from news of barbarism’s victories. Instead, I met Catholic and Orthodox Christians who are resisting it with joy and confidence, and inspiring others to join them. For example, I was delighted to see so many young Orthodox worshipers at the Romanian parish that meets in the crypt of St. Sulpice church. Several of them told me in separate conversations that Father Razvan Ionescu, one of the priests on staff, does a lot to attract young Orthodox Parisians to the parish. That local community of Orthodox Christian believers meets in the basement of a church in the center of Paris, but it is in fact a lighthouse on a mountaintop, for those with eyes to see.
It’s happening, y’all. Alasdair MacIntyre:
A crucial turning point in that earlier history occurred when men and women of good will turned aside from the task of shoring up the Roman imperium and ceased to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of that imperium. What they set themselves to achieve instead often not recognizing fully what they were doing—was the construction of new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained so that both morality and civility might survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness. If my account of our moral condition is correct, we ought also to conclude that for some time now we too have reached that turning point. What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us.
We are not going to escape the great flood of liquid modernity. But we can build arks upon which civility and the intellectual and moral life — and above all, its foundation, a life of faith — can remain above the waves.
Like I said: it’s happening. I saw it on my recent “withdrawal” from the world in Paris. Now that I’m fully back in my usual world, I want to share the good news. Be encouraged! Be inspired! Be a creative minority where you are! You are not alone.
UPDATE: This passage from Gary Saul Morson’s terrific new essay about Solzhenitsyn seems appropriate here:
The core chapter of Gulag, entitled “The Ascent,” explains that according to Soviet ideology, absorbed by almost everyone, the only standard of morality is success. If there are no otherworldly truths, then effectiveness in this world is all that counts. That is why the Party is justified in doing anything. For the individual prisoner, this way of thinking entails a willingness to inflict harm on others as a means of survival. Whether to yield to this temptation represents the great moral choice of a prisoner’s life: “From this point the roads go to the right and to the left. One of them will rise and the other descend. If you go the right—you lose your life; and if you go to the left—you lose your conscience.”
Some people choose conscience. To do so, they must believe, as Solzhenitsyn came to believe, that the world as described by materialism is only part of reality. In addition, there is, as every religion has insisted, a realm of objective values, which are not mere social constructs. You can’t make the right choice as a postmodernist.
Once you give up survival at any price, “then imprisonment begins to transform your former character in astonishing ways. To transform it in a direction most unexpected to you.” You learn what true friendship is. Sensing your own weakness, you become more forgiving of others and “an understanding mildness” informs your “un-categorical judgments.” As you review your life, and face your bad choices, you gain self-knowledge available in no other way. Above all, you learn that what is most valuable is “the development of the soul.” In the Gulag I nourished my soul, Solzhenitsyn concludes, and so I say without hesitation: “Bless you, prison, for having been in my life!”