L’Esprit d’Escalier, Dishcast Edition
(Note: "l'esprit d'escalier" is French for "the spirit of the staircase" -- an elegant phrase for that feeling you get when you think about what you wish you had said, after it's too late. The idea is that you will have left the dinner party, and gotten to the bottom of the host's staircase on your way out, and suddenly the right thought occurs to you.)
I just finished recording an episode of the Dishcast with my friend Andrew Sullivan. Unsurprisingly, we talked for a while about sex, and homosexuality. I did not represent the Christian position well, I'm afraid. I did not give an argument about why the Christian sexual ethic is good. I realize that it's because for me, it's totally a matter of obedience. As I've explained many times, and did again on Andrew's show, once I understood that my own sexual activity was the only barrier to accepting Christ, and once I saw what a mess I was making of my life by standing firm for what I believed was my sexual freedom, I knew that I had a choice to make: I could have my sexual freedom, or I could have Christ. Anything short of making that sacrifice was dishonest. So I did, and I have lived by that ethic, even through difficult times. I told him that if I never have the opportunity to marry again, then I face living the rest of my life in celibacy -- and I'm fine with that. I don't look forward to it, but I would rather have Christ than anything else.
He wanted me to make an argument about why the Christian teaching is good, and I'm just not prepared for that. I suppose I should be, but as I told him, the teaching of Scripture, and the constant witness of the Church since the beginning, has been very clear, undeniably so. He does deny it, of course, and I know that nothing I say would change his mind. Still, I wish I had been able to at least make an argument that doesn't rely on the authority of Scripture, and the authority of the Church. But for me, it really is that plain. I see absolutely no way that one can honestly follow Jesus, faithfully, and carve out an exception for sexual activity (straight or gay) outside the clear bounds set by the faith. I think Christians who say otherwise are rationalizing doing what they want to do.
If I were a pastor or an apologist, I would need to come up with something more than that. But I also believe that for most Christians who reject this key aspect of Christian truth, it's not about argument. It's about the will. I saw, on my own road to conversion, that all the arguments I came up with to justify holding on to my sexual freedom were nothing but rationalizations. The key question people should ask themselves -- it's a question I asked myself in my twenties, as I wrestled with what God asked of me -- is this: would you surrender even your sexual freedom to serve Christ, if He asked? If the answer is "no," then you must know that it's not a matter of propositional logic. It's rebellion in the heart.
The reason I, personally, don't spend any time thinking about why the Bible's teaching on sex and sexuality is good is because I have accepted it as a matter of obedience, even if I don't fully understand it. And I strive to live my life in accordance with that teaching, as with all the faith's teachings. By God's grace, I've managed to hold to the truth on my sexual life, but I have failed in other areas, and do fail. Still, I know what the standard is, and I wrestle all the time with my own passions trying to convince me that God doesn't really care about this or that thing that I like. I've been an Orthodox Christian for almost 17 years now, and observing the fasts has taught me a lot about why subjecting the passions to the Spirit is so important. You could not have convinced me of that with argumentation before my conversion. I had to live it to understand. I wish, though, that I could better articulate my position when put on the spot.
It is not wrong to inquire as to why the hard teachings of the faith are right or wrong. I suppose that for me -- and maybe this is an intellectual failing -- I'm far more interested in how one is to live out the hard teaching than on whether or not one who calls himself a Christian should accept what is such an unambiguous teaching.
I told Andrew that going through so much suffering in my own life, especially these past ten years, has made me more merciful and less willing to judge. "Oh, you do a lot of judging," he said. That's true, if by "judging" you mean saying that I am confident that this or that behavior is morally wrong (and not just sexual behavior). What I mean by "not judging" is not being willing to say to this person, whatever his or her sins, is going to Hell. Only God knows their hearts. It is wrong to think that someone is doing something that you believe is wrong, and that is putting their mortal soul in danger, and to say it's not wrong when asked.
I mentioned to Andrew that it has been a lesson for me to see how many people who know nothing about the marriage that my wife and I are ending, and the pain we both went through as it was falling apart (which, by the way, had nothing at all to do with infidelity), are so quick to judge me. I don't at all mind people saying that divorce is bad. I agree! That's one reason why we stayed married for years after it was clear that things were over, and we both put ourselves through a lot of suffering. As I wrote here when my wife filed for divorce, I don't blame her for doing it; by choosing to end our mutual pain, she probably made the more courageous choice. I don't believe that Christ's command to "judge not, lest ye be judged" is a statement about moral relativism. It's not about saying, for example, that divorce is good, or at least refraining from saying that divorce is bad. It's about recognizing that there can be mitigating circumstances, and in any case, that God alone knows a sinner's heart, and that even as we judge someone's behavior to be immoral, sinful, whatever, we can't lose sight of the fact that they are a human being created in God's image, and loved by God.
This is very hard for me to do! I struggle with it when it comes to people who abuse the weak. I'm haunted right now by what those young men in Baton Rouge are charged with having done to that drunk sorority girl. If they are convicted, I would be perfectly fine with them all spending the rest of their lives in jail (though the crime with which they are charged does not have a life sentence). What I struggle with is the truth that even though they are great and horrible sinners, if they are guilty of this hideous act, they are still God's children, and that I have to do my best to see their humanity beneath their sins. That's why Sister Helen Prejean is more Christ-like than I am. For now, anyway.
I told Andrew the story about being present when my elderly and dying father, an extremely proud man, found the strength within himself to apologize to me, indirectly, for the way he had treated me all my life. He phrased it like this, with his chin quivering, and his eyes filled with tears: "I had a long conversation with the Lord last night, about my transgressions against you. I told Him I was sorry. And I think He heard me."
Daddy couldn't say, "Son, I was wrong, please forgive me." That's not how he was made. He was disfigured by pride, as we all are, to some extent. But I knew that this was as good as I would ever hear from that old man, and I knew that it took everything he had in him to say those words. "He did hear you," I said, and kissed him on the cheek, in forgiveness.
Mercy doesn't say that sin is not sin, that wrong is right. It only says that love is greater than sin. Only God really knows the kind of struggle that old man had inside his heart just to say, through a stammer, those words. That small act of confession caused rejoicing in the Kingdom of Heaven, I believe. It certainly did in my heart. I had learned from reading Dante about that quality of mercy. When the pilgrim Dante meets Manfred in Purgatorio, he hears the testimony of this noble who had been excommunicated by the Church, talking about how, as he lay dying on the battlefield, he called out to heaven -- and was forgiven. He would have to spend a long time in Purgatory being cleansed of his tendency to sin, but he had been saved from Hell by his last-minute repentance. Whatever Manfred's sins were, they were still wrong. But he had begged for mercy, and found it -- and was full of gratitude.
During the whole drama I recount in How Dante Can Save Your Life, I talk about how my priest at the time, Father Matthew, would hear me in confession talking about how hurt and angry I was that my folks didn't love me the way I wanted them to do. He warned me that I couldn't stand on justice, that I have to follow Christ's example. Jesus loves us even though we don't love him the way we should, he said. Don't put up with any abusive behavior by your folks, he said, but don't let their failures keep you from loving them. You don't have that right as a Christian. Do the best you can.
I had to die to myself a lot to do that. But I felt that I had no choice but to obey. The priest could have given me a lecture about why it was good for me to do that, but he knew, and I knew, that it wasn't about convincing me of the correctness of living that way. It was about my unwilling heart.
Here's a section of the book:
The next evening, Mama called to say Daddy had gone to bed with a severe fever. I drove over to check on him and found him under his covers, shivering. When I drew back the blankets to straighten them, his arms shook violently from the chills. His fever was 102.8 degrees and rising. He tried to get up to use the bathroom but was too weak to stand, even with Mama and me supporting him.
I phoned his doctor, who said to take him at once to the hospital. Off we went to Baton Rouge General, where we spent the entire night in the geriatric emergency room. He lay resting in a curtained bay, with doctors and nurses going in and out, testing, poking, and prodding. Throughout the long night, I would take walks throughout the ward. There were souls moaning behind the curtains, and family members moving tensely through the hallways, some near tears.
It was near daylight before we finally settled him in a room and I headed out for the long drive home to the country. I thought about how little time Daddy had left. Earlier in the evening, drawing his trembling hands together, he murmured matter-of-factly, “The windows on my life are closing to just a thin space.”
There was no point in denying it. Though I had already decided I was not going to get the reconciliation with him that I wanted, I thought about what I wanted to say to him before he died.
Then it hit me: I needed to confess my sins to my father and ask for his forgiveness. What were my sins? Many were the times I had spoken in anger about him, especially since coming home and seeing everything fall apart. Many were the occasions when I had not gone to visit him because I was hurt and furious over the way he treated me. And many were the moments when I had withheld love because I hated the injustice.
The bottom line was that I had not loved him as I ought to have loved him.
God’s will for me was to love this frail old fighter who was my father. That much was certain. But the wrongs I have done to him aren’t nearly as serious as the wrongs he has done to me, I thought. If I ask his forgiveness, he will think that he has won, when he hasn’t.
Won? Once and for all, I had to accept that this was not a court case. This was life. My father was losing it. And what was I doing putting our sins against each other in a balance? Love, as Father Matthew never tired of saying, doesn’t expect justice.
Besides, God will not judge me for what my father did to me. He will judge me for what I did, period. There is no sin that my father committed against me that I have not committed also. If not for God’s love, I would still be trapped in the Inferno of my own passions. I received the gift of mercy from my father in heaven; I cannot hoard it, especially not from my earthly father.
Now I had the chance to allow the course of love to run in reverse, and to offer to my own dad the unconditional love I had craved from him. Sitting at my kitchen table, I e-mailed Father Matthew, told him what I was thinking, and asked him to help me prepare for this conversation.
“I have been waiting for two years for you to see this,” he wrote back. “I’ll help you in any way that I can."
Mama called early the next day to say that the hospital would be discharging Daddy later that morning. I finished my coffee and headed into the city, phoning Father Matthew as soon as I made it to Highway 61. We talked for a bit, and he said he would be praying for me.
When I joined my folks in the room, my mother excused herself to go have some breakfast.
Sitting knee to knee with my father, I began. “Daddy, I have something I need to say to you. I have sinned against you, and I’m asking for your forgiveness. I have been angry with you for a long time over the way you have treated me, especially since I came back home and things went to hell. I have let that anger get the best of me and harden my heart against you. I have not loved you as well as I should have. I’m sorry. Please forgive me.”
His lower lip trembled. His left hand, resting in his lap, shook.
“I forgive you, darling,” he said softly.
We talked for some time longer, and I told him that I had expected more from the family than they could give. The bad things, the painful things, that happened after I came home were all for the good, I told him, because they had made me face up to some sins in my own heart that I needed to repent of—and had brought me closer to God. I wanted him to know the truth: that as much as I had hated this struggle, it was a blessing.
“I . . . I just didn’t know how to love you,” my father said, raising his mottled arms. “You were not what I expected. The kind of man I was, I . . .” His voice trailed off.
He did not have the words.
When he mentioned that forgiveness is important but that he had no one to ask it from, I felt my heart sink, but resisted the temptation to pity myself, to wallow in my wounded pride, to envy Daddy his untroubled conscience. Lay that burden down, I thought. The day is coming, and coming soon, when you will miss these moments, however much they miss the mark.
Love is not a contractual exchange; love is given with no expectation of return. Love does not keep a ledger. What mattered was that my dying father knew that I loved him, and his remaining days would not be burdened with the weight of my banked anger.
What mattered was that I had done this not because of any goodness within myself but because God had given me the strength. What mattered was that I had done this. Grace had moved my heart toward closer harmony with the love that moves the sun and all the other stars; grace turned my heart like a wheel, day by day carrying me a little bit further down the long road home. The path was straight. I was well. And I was free.
That's how the hardback edition ended. The paperback (which is the one I link to above) recounts how later that spring, we did have the reconciliation I had hoped and prayed for (what I mentioned above, with him stammering), and how he had a beautiful death, with me holding his hand, and him leaving this world in peace.
I bring all this up because it explains how I approach the whole question of judgment. The things my father did to me -- the unkindness with which he treated me at times -- was objectively wrong. Nothing changes that. But through the grace of God, the guidance of my priest, and the wisdom in Dante, I was able to push through the injustice, and find a way to connect with the heart of my father, the sinner, as a fellow sinner also in need of mercy. Like the great lines from Auden: "You shall love your crooked neighbor/With your crooked heart."
So: what sexual sinners do with their bodies is sinful. I know this because the Bible, and the Church, say so. I don't question it. What people who are gluttons (here I raise my hand) do with their bodies is also sinful. I know this because the Bible, and the Church, say so. What people inordinately attached to wealth, or fame, or any other idol that takes them away from unity with the All-Holy, who speaks to us through Holy Scripture and the Church, remains sinful, and nothing is going to change that. As Dante illustrates, all disordered passions -- loving the wrong things, or loving the right things too much or too little -- are sinful, because they miss the mark set for us by God.
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But that's not the whole story.
These lines from Dante's Paradiso, the third and final book of the Divine Comedy, capture why sacrificing our passions for the sake of unity with Christ is so important. His love is eternal. I sacrificed my passions at first out of obedience. Now I do it because I love Him, and want to give Him that gift of myself. Not because I am convinced by better arguments! That would be pride talking. But because I want to give Him, the one who gave His life for me, my own life. Dante writes, of those lost to this love by their own stubborn will:
It is well that endless be his grief
who, for love of things that do not last,
casts off a love that never dies.