Saturday, June 14, 2014

The Action of Grace in Territory Held Largely by the Devil

I have been dusting off old writings that were never posted and have come across many on the topic of love and relationships. I expect the reader's impression to vary anywhere from a wholehearted agreement with my views to a visceral reaction against them. But please know that I share my thoughts out of good will, recognizing that most of us struggle in this area at some point (for better or for worse) and that hopefully my writing can provide food for thought or at least a sense of solidarity. After all, misery loves company. This first post is quite long, so kudos to anyone who soldiers through to the very end! :o)

Today, my friend Becky and I are attending a pilgrimage day at the Shrine of St. Anthony so it seems fitting to share this post which contains a reference to one of the talks from the same event two years ago. It uses the first person plural to refer to myself, my previous boyfriends, and others from among my various peer groups. It is up to the reader to decide whether he/she belongs to this collective we.

The following borrows its title from Flannery O'Connor, who once described the topic of her writing as "the action of grace in territory held largely by the devil". It was prayerfully composed and presented in oral form to the Baltimore Lay Missionaries of Charity as part of a series of presentations on the four LMC vows: poverty, chastity, obedience, and free and wholehearted service to the poorest of the poor. This particular talk focused on the vow of chastity, including both celibacy and marital chastity.

The Action of Grace in Territory Held Largely by the Devil
March 2, 2013 Lay Missionaries of Charity meeting, Gift of Hope, Baltimore

In the Divine Comedy, the foundation of Dante’s seven story mountain, Mount Purgatory, is Pride. For Dante, Lust is the icing on the cake. But perhaps because it’s the least heavy of the 7 deadly sins it serves as a sort of gateway sin to lead us further away from God. The Devil is waiting for the branches to grow on the vine and as soon as they reach full maturity he plucks them off through lust. How many young people have been lost to Lust?

I want to paint a picture of romantic relationships outside of God’s grace and how the world is turned upside down:

The concept of soulmate was so ingrained in our thinking. In a pagan sense, we really felt that fate had a particular person set aside for each of us and that, if we were persistent in our seeking and perhaps a little lucky, a miracle of chance would bring us together. And so every committed long term relationship resulted in assuring ourselves that we had found The One, while fearing that we had not. We felt that soulmates were meant to complete each other. 

I put him on a pedestal and was dismayed whenever he failed to live up to my expectations. If he forgot to call me then I was upset because clearly he was not making me the top priority in his life. I started to think that maybe he would be perfect for me some day but just needed to grow up a bit. And so I tried to fix him. We had a partial understanding of the truth that romantic partners should inspire each other to grow. But our corrupted thinking caused us to pursue this by demanding conformity to unreasonably strict, and often unhealthy, standards.

We understood, in some crude way, that in a healthy marriage the two become one flesh. But we were not married, and our concept of becoming one flesh did not respect the dignity of the individual person. We felt that we had to give up our own identities, in a sort of misguided self-sacrifice. We were to spend as much time together as possible, socialize with the same friends, participate in the same activities, all while constantly thinking about each other. Because if I can’t stop thinking about him then I must really love him, right? (Funny, that’s not true of my relationship with my mother.) We were willfully becoming attached, both physically and emotionally, in a worldly way, without any covenant agreement to protect us.

We saw allowing ourselves to be used as a form of charity. The world’s logic told me that I was not, in fact, being used if I consented to it. Having that final say as to whether or not I will allow myself to be used became a means of manipulating and controlling the other person. It was a way to feel powerful while submitting to the whim of another person. And so, the reality is that we were mutually using each other. But the world was turned upside down. We saw ourselves as mutually submitting to each other and thought of this as love.

The Truth was in us. We had an innate sense that perfect love is a complete giving of self. But we did not have the fidelity to the First Commandment to protect us. (Jesus' wording being "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.") If I had loved the Lord above all things, I would not have been willing to commit sin in order to please another human being. I would not have encouraged another human being to sin, nor would I have knowingly done anything that might cause another human being to sin. I was doing the opposite of St. Maria Goretti, but calling it virtue.

I did not know God so I was left to rely on my own poorly developed conscience, and the advice of The World. My conscience started out healthy, but over time it was corrupted by the world. Although my thinking was selfish in so many areas, I understood the truth that love involves sacrifice, but I didn’t know what that should look like. And without moral absolutes, the Devil and The World had turned everything upside down. Evil looked like good.

You hold on to chastity as long as possible but eventually you feel like the only person in the world who thinks it’s worth waiting until marriage and, without God, you start to wonder what’s the point? This moral code I militantly cling to isn’t helping me any. It’s just keeping me alone and lonely. But most of us want to be a “good” person—whatever that means—and so we start to rationalize. The typical rationalization for a committed long term relationship is that we love each other enough to be married and plan to get married when fill-in-the-blank circumstances permit, so we’re as good as married. (Note the complete lack of understanding of the sanctity of marriage; it’s seen as a mere contract.) We’re soulmates, after all, it would be wrong to deny ourselves the full expression of love!

At the back of one’s mind, however, is the fear that this person may not actually be my soulmate. What if my soulmate is still out there searching for me and I mistakenly marry this person? And so if someone comes along to whom I feel more attracted and more compatible then I feel obligated by fate to leave my current relationship and pursue this new possibility. And I see my growing doubt as a sign that my current partner is not The One. The soulmate mentality leads to fear of commitment, infidelity, and sometimes the worst tragedy as in the case of Romeo and Juliet (who could not endure life apart) and Anna Karenina (who destroyed herself in pursuit of the perfect romance).

When such a relationships ends, it becomes clear that the love we had was not eternal. It was a counterfeit of the lasting love of the Sacrament of Marriage. It was not agape, but a mix of erotic and filial love, neither or which were rooted in a relationship with God. It was obvious that we had been fooling ourselves thinking that sort of relationship would last. 

In the humiliating aftermath of a broken relationship, we no longer trust our ability to judge and recognize a healthy relationship—still failing to realize that we will never find that healthy, lasting relationship outside of God’s grace. But time dulls the pain of such failures, and eventually we work up the courage to search again. With na├»ve optimism we move on to the next Godless relationship, hoping that eventually we will find The One.

Now, of course, I realize that this was a search for God and that I truly did have a God-shaped hole in my heart. But I was so blind to the spiritual that it never even occurred to me to seek fulfillment in God. It made no more sense to me than seeking to have a living, personal relationship with a bowl of ice cream. If God was a living person, then he certainly didn’t seem to want anything to do with me.

However, in my most recent relationship, that pagan understanding of soulmate opened my mind ever so slightly to the concept of Divine Providence. And my unhealthy emotional attachment to a lapsed Catholic opened my heart ever so slightly to Jesus. With the objective of convincing him that Catholicism is obviously wrong and, yet, desperately hoping to find Truth in the “Christian” churches, I started reading the Bible and searching for answers to the usual questions (e.g. why does God allow suffering?). But I was surprised to find that Catholicism provided the most complete and reasonable answers and soon I was spending every spare moment reading the Catechism of the Catholic Church and seeking answers to the typical accusations against the Church.

I expected this boyfriend to be excited and, at first, he was. I think he was relieved to no longer have to defend the religious practices of his devout mother. I was excited to find that faith and reason are not mutually exclusive and wanted to share my discoveries. He would humor me for a while but then was irritable that I had become so single minded. Sometimes I would ask him to help me understand a difficult concept such as transubstantiation. That particular topic led to our biggest argument that resulted in his feeling ashamed of his poor understanding of the faith and my feeling appalled that someone could profess to believe something so strange with no more than a superficial understanding of the concept.

Soon my mind was open enough to consider giving prayer a chance. The rosary seemed to be a good place to start because, even from a secular point of view, I could appreciate the benefit of meditation and becoming more familiar with the mysteries. Soon I was willing to admit definitively that I believed in God. It was not faith (i.e. trust) at this point, but I was identifying myself as a theist. Over time I convinced this boyfriend to come to Mass with me on Sundays but, having firsthand knowledge that he was not in God’s grace according to the teachings of the Church, I was upset when he insisted on receiving communion.

I came to love Catholicism on an intellectual level and decided that some day (probably in the distant future) I would receive the Sacraments of Initiation. But I still had a very poorly developed conscience. My immature understanding of sin led me to view all actions in one of two categories: gravely sinful such that they must never be committed, and not gravely sinful and therefore permissible. When I saw the conditions for mortal sin, I understood that if one committed a gravely sinful act without realizing that it was a sin, then the sin committed by this particular person was actually venial. It was demoted to the second list of acts that are permissible and, therefore, don’t warrant any further thought.

Unwilling to change my life at this point, I put immense amounts of time and effort into convincing myself that all of my mortal sins could be considered venial. And I found a seemingly limitless supply of heretics posing as faithful Catholics to supply arguments which, filtered by my broken conscience, seemed quite logical. I was still blind to the fact that this process was a blatant violation of the first, most important, Commandment.

For example, I found an article written by a so-called Catholic priest arguing that cohabitation before marriage should be allowed because, historically, betrothed couples lived together before marriage was finalized. His main conclusion was that committed, monogamous couples that plan to pursue marriage should be permitted to live as though married because, basically, they would be married except that they had not gotten around to receiving the Sacrament yet. So receiving the Sacrament was considered more of a technicality. (A gross misunderstanding of Sacrament!)

Also, I found that it is allowable to use hormone treatments for medical reasons and, assuming those reasons are grave, the woman commits no sin due to the fact that this treatment also renders her sterile. And so I neatly rationalized that if my primary reason for taking birth control pills was to maintain a regular menstrual cycle, then this was not sin. My conscience nagged at me a bit as to whether or not this was a grave reason for receiving medical treatment but since ‘regularity’ and ‘gravity’ seemed subjective I thought nobody would judge too harshly.

I remember an episode of Seinfeld in which the main character, Jerry, was going to take a lie detector test because he had lied to a girlfriend, the daughter of a cop. But he didn’t want her to know. So he and his friends were trying to figure out how to beat the lie detector. His friend George said something like, “If you can convince yourself that it’s true, then it’s not a lie.” George thought that if Jerry could just manipulate his mind to the point where he believed that what he had said was true, the test would not be able to detect the lie.

You see, I was not thinking of God’s judgment, but rather the judgment of whatever priest I might one day meet in the confessional and whether or not he would insist that I change my behavior. In the end, my reasoning seemed so convincing that I felt no obligation to ever mention these sins to a priest. “If I can convince myself that it’s good, then it’s not a sin.” But I was forgetting that I would be judged by God, and not by my reason but by my heart.

I was confused because I was still thinking the way man thinks rather than how God thinks. In today’s world, man primarily seeks to maximize pleasure and minimize suffering. This is why I have so many friends who argue that prostitution and pornography serve a necessary function and are, in many ways, good. They say that the suffering caused by sexual temptation is bad, and the relief of that suffering by giving in to the temptation is good. The suffering caused by the degrading nature of the job of prostitute or porn star is bad, but the financial compensation is good. And it is up to the individual to decide if the good outweighs the bad. There is little sense that the bad harms more than those who are directly involved. There is no sense of communion, as the Catechism explains:

Communion in charity. In the sanctorum communio, "None of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself." "If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together. Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it." "Charity does not insist on its own way." In this solidarity with all men, living or dead, which is founded on the communion of saints, the least of our acts done in charity redounds to the profit of all. Every sin harms this communion.

Without a personal relationship with God, we are not protected by the First Commandment which so often saves us from sin and rationalization. This is why conversion of the heart is necessary for the protection of chastity and purity. Without a living faith, we lose the sense of communion and the understanding that our sins poison all of creation. We seek eternal love in counterfeit, worldly things.

Gradually, God converted my heart through prayer so that I could no longer bear to live in mortal sin. I informed this boyfriend that our relationship would have to be chaste from now on. A few days later he broke up with me. I was shocked and emotionally devastated and upset with myself for being wrong again about finding The One. But this time my suffering was not wasted; it brought me closer to God.

My heart did not understand the teachings of the Church until I read Theology of the Body. The words of Pope St. John Paul 2 painted such a beautiful picture of sacramental marriage that I could no longer find comfort in any substitute. Coincidentally, a couple of my devout Catholic friends were engaged-to-be-married and their chaste relationships glowed with a joy mine had never had. I noticed a beautiful young couple at Mass each morning and as the husband helped his very pregnant wife into the pew I thought, that’s how relationships are suppose to be. At the same time I encountered many beautiful nuns who seemed so joyful that I wanted that same chastity and purity and I saw the dysfunction of the unhealthy emotional attachment that had characterized my past relationships.

It was important for me to see that it’s possible to live chastity joyfully both inside and outside of marriage. We need defenders of the truth to make us uncomfortable in our lies. We need to see true, Sacramental love to make us unsatisfied with our counterfeit relationships. We need people to help us understand the truth, so that we can see how perfect it is. People need to know that it’s possible to live chastity. People need to know that there is something better. People need signs of contradiction. Until my conversion, I had never known anything but unhealthy relationships and the ways of the world.

At a talk last year, a Franciscan friar pointed out that Purity, symbolized by the lily, is not just physical but also of the heart and mind. He said that the lily represents an undivided heart. The root word for chaste means morally pure. So we can think of a vow of chastity as a quest for ever increasing moral purity by obedience to Christ through the moral teachings of the Church. In addition, through surrendering to God’s will and being freed from worldly attachments, we can achieve an undivided heart. So poverty, chastity, and obedience are inextricably linked.

The Church is alive, she grows and she awakens in souls, which   - as the Virgin Mary – welcome the Word of God and conceive it through the work of the Holy Spirit; they offer to God their own flesh, indeed in their own poverty and humbleness, becoming capable of giving birth to Christ in the world today. –Pope Benedict XVI, final address

Love is indeed ecstasy, not in the sense of a moment of intoxication, but rather as a journey, an ongoing exodus out of the closed inward-looking self toward its liberation... and the discovery of God. –His Holiness Benedict XVI

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