Collect


Prayer over the Offerings for the Assumption

Let this oblation of our devotion ascend unto thee, O Lord: and, at the intercession of the most Blessed Virgin Mary assumed into heaven, may our hearts, enkindled with the fire of thy love, continually yearn after thee; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

A Plague on Both Our Houses

MERCUTIO  I am hurt.
A plague o’ both your houses! I am sped.
Is he gone and hath nothing?
BENVOLIO             What, art thou hurt?
MERCUTIO  Ay, ay, a scratch, a scratch. Marry, ‘tis enough.
Where is my page?—Go, villain, fetch a surgeon.

William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, III.1.lv-ilx

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Nate Silver tells us there’s an eighty-odd percent chance that Mrs Clinton will be our next President, not that many of us really want her to be. What we don’t want even harder is for Mr Trump to be our next President. But at least nearly everyone is likely to be equally unhappy on 20th January 2017: Trump’s partisans will be unhappy because Clinton is being inaugurated, and those who voted for Clinton will be unhappy for the same reason.


I’ve said as much as I have to say about voting in this election before. This post is about why we’re fucked in a general way no matter who wins—although probably way more fucked if Trump were to take office, just because of his gross incompetence. Hillary may be a crook but she isn’t an idiot.

The problem is, The Issues on which this election, and most elections, officially take place have next to nothing to do with our actual power to function as a nation.1 What we’re threatened with are certain problems, many of which no one at all is talking about, and most of which aren’t treated as national problems even when they are. These include:

1. Eliminating surveillance of citizens.

This is what Snowden was protesting. It’s a fundamental breach of the Fourth Amendment, which addresses the right to privacy; ‘no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.’2 It could be argued—and probably is, by the Department of Homeland Security—that this doesn’t address surveillance per se, but searching things manually was surveillance at that time. And in any case, the whole point is, quite obviously, that any intrusion on someone’s privacy must be justified by probable, not possible, cause (one backed up by a legally binding oath), and that such intrusions must have a defined object. So, for instance, searching for ‘a bomb’ or ‘an illegal handgun,’ not ‘weapons.’


Neither party is really interested in solving this problem—nor the problems with due process that our nation has entangled itself in over the course of the so-called War on Terror.3 Democrats like to pretend they are, because the Patriot Act was introduced under a Republican administration; but Obama signed the NDAA and nobody raised a stink,4 which shows that they’re just as cynically pragmatic as their opposite numbers in the GOP.

One of the necessary corollaries to this is that whistleblower protections have to be increased. (Snowden actually did attempt to go through official channels with his protest, and was shut down; and of course, since then, he has had his passport canceled while in Russia, rather a dickish move on the part of the government.) A society that punishes those who expose its faults can never be a free society. The mechanisms that sustain its freedom have already been destroyed.

2. Eliminating gerrymandering.

Gerrymandering—a.k.a., the practice of drawing congressional districts in totally asinine shapes so that whatever party is in charge during the time of drawing the districts can stay that way—is, in itself, totally hostile to any idea of real democracy. Either you have representative government, or you don’t, and gerrymandering interferes with representation, rendering it a don’t. Even the electoral college, as weird a system as it is, sort of tries to follow the actual population of the states. Neither party wants to confront this, because both of them want the option of using it to their advantage. (And sure, some of them likely feel there are more important things to do with their time, but honestly, I think they’re probably wrong—not because nothing’s more important than getting rid of gerrymandering, but because I find it highly unlikely that politicians care about those more important things, either.) Understand, I’m not saying that gerrymandering makes room for corruption; gerrymandering is corruption.

3. Deal with police corruption.


Corruption, excessive power, and lack of oversight plague our police force. These problems have been displayed most forcibly by the Black Lives Matter movement,5 but they’ve been exposed even in much smaller and stupider matters, like cyclists. I don’t know whether anything can be done on a federal level to confront police corruption, since police forces (if I’m rightly informed) are basically under the control of the fifty states. Nevertheless the scale of the problem is national—Florida, Missouri, New York, Ohio, Maryland, Louisiana, and Minnesota have all seen high-profile cases, and high-profile cases are always a small selection of reality. If we accept the authority of a national government at all, it is that government which is responsible to deal with this problem—as it will certainly be this government’s own problem if and when its failure to deal with it erupts into revolt and bloodshed.

My own opinion is that the British model of ‘policing by consent’ is the preferable alternative to … well, policing by guns, which honestly is kinda what American police seem to do. I think it should be implemented as swiftly and smoothly as possible, especially in cities, where the lack of a local, personal connection to police officers is so much likelier to impede their work.

4. Criminalize the practice of passing legislation without reading it.

It’s embarrassing that a rule like this would have to be stated in so many words, but you shouldn’t pass a law if you don’t even know what it fucking says. The irresponsibility is astonishing and disgusting.6 The law that springs to mind is the Affordable Care Act: not that I disapprove of health care being available to everyone—I’m strongly in favor of health care being universal, because come on, people shouldn’t have to cook meth or run a Kickstarter so they can not die—but that those fuckers passed that bill without reading it. I can barely words, in my attempt to describe how not okay that is. If our legislators can’t even be assed to read the damn things, why should we be required to obey them? If you want to jail us for disobeying a law, but you can’t even tell us what the law is, maybe that consequence should be turned around on you.

It could be argued, and with some justice, that no one on earth could face reading the Newspeak monstrosity that is [any bill here]. However, this seems to me to be better grounds for instituting a ‘Cut the crap and write comprehensible bills’ rule than for instituting laws that neither the populace nor their lawmakers understand. It isn’t often one gets to use the word Kafkaesque accurately, but here we are.


5. For fuck’s sake. Balance the budget.

The national debt of the US currently stands at about $19.4 trillion,7 or, to desanitize it just a little, 19,400,000,000,000 of dollars. In other words, if everyone in the country worked eight hours a day at a minimum wage job, for which their entire paycheck went to paying off the national debt, and taking no sick days, weekends, or holidays whatsoever—it’d still take twenty-two years to get the country out of debt.

This isn’t just an economic obscenity, though it is certainly that. It’s a warning. Countries that get in this kind of mess are at risk of becoming dictatorships, because a dictator, somebody with untrammeled and unaccountable power, is almost the only person who can actually put things in order once they get bad enough. A statesman who has to worry about reëlection, or even about being examined and perhaps disciplined by the rest of the government, has to please the electorate or the cabinet as much or more as he has to solve the actual problems he’s presented with. An unbalanced budget is, therefore, a great long-term plan for turning a democracy into a dictatorship—especially because the mechanism for putting a charismatic person in power and keeping him there is so readily available.8


If we, as a nation and as an electorate, don’t make a point of electing politicians who will do what it takes to balance the budget—and don’t accept what it will take—then we’re condemning ourselves to the consequences: a weak currency, an uncertain future for ourselves and our children, and the increased likelihood that the only person who’ll be able to restore order to a fractured society is a bona fide tyrant.

There are steps that could be taken: for example, reïntroducing the backing of currency (whether with gold or some other concrete thing), to help curb inflation and keep an actual relationship between the goods that are available and the money that ostensibly measures their worth. No such steps are likely under Mrs Clinton, and I think we can predict with total confidence that they will not happen under Mr Trump. But a clear grasp of the real problems facing us is the first necessity.

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1Ordinarily I’d make an exception here with regard to abortion: I don’t believe any nation can survive for long with any semblance of order and peace, as long as it dismisses certain human lives as beneath its consideration. The reason I don’t think abortion makes any difference in this specific election is that neither candidate is pro-life. Trump claims that he will appoint pro-life justices to the Supreme Court, but frankly, I wouldn’t trust him not to piss on my leg and tell me it’s raining. I mean, this is the man who said during the second debate, word for word, ‘I mean, I know about Russia, but I know nothing about Russia.’ To say nothing of the blatant lies he has been repeatedly caught in, not infrequently on video, about every subject under the sun.
2From the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America, emphasis mine.
3I say so-called because, even if we argue that every act that’s taken place under the ægis of the War on Terror was both just and necessary, it isn’t exactly a war; there’s no defined enemy and, therefore, no declaration of war—thus neatly circumventing both the provisions made concerning war in the Constitution, and also the guidelines carefully laid down by centuries of Just War Theory.
4If you have an innate impatience with reading linked articles (as I do), the short version of the NDAA is that any person suspected of involvement with, or substantial support for, Al Qaeda and Friends can be imprisoned indefinitely without so much as access to a lawyer. Yes, that includes American citizens, even on American soil; you’ll noticed they killed Anwar al-Awlaki (a citizen) with a drone strike, not in battle—still less did they arrest and try him. (Granted, al-Awlaki was apparently a monster, but the Bill of Rights contains no addendum reading ‘Unless they’re complete turdburglars, in which case you can just murder their asses.’)
5I don’t agree with everything the BLM movement’s proponents say. No one could, since many of them say different and incompatible things. But they have, in fact, spoken to the institutionalized racism that still influences much of our police force across the country, and for that, we owe them thanks.
6I would go as far as to say that passing (or repealing) a bill without reading it invalidates the law, ipso facto, because doing that violates literally the entire point of having laws: to govern the behavior of a community. If you don’t even know what behavior you’re prescribing or penalizing, then your pronouncements on the subject are worthless, and other people shouldn’t be bound by them.
7You’ll probably see lower estimates than this. These come from the (partly smoke-and-mirrors) technique of splitting up governmental debt into that which is officially held by the public, i.e. owed to non-government creditors (such as private individuals), and that which is intragovernmental, i.e. owed by one government department to another. Budget surpluses and deficits, meanwhile, have just about no reference to the national debt, only to the amount of money budgeted by Congress for the operations of government, which may or may not have anything to do with resolving our debt. Believe me when I say things only get stupider from here.
8Ironically, term limits may make this worse. The professed purpose of term limits was to keep anyone from tyrannically hanging on to power. The problem is, the shorter a term limit is, the less the person elected has any vested interest in actually doing the work they were elected to do, because they’re so beholden to popularity—a force that does little to preserve the healthy functioning of any state—that they can scarcely afford, politically, to think about anything else. A longer term limit allows the elected official breathing room in which they can (relatively) disregard the popularity of their policies; but of course, if they’re novices, that may not matter—especially when it comes to affairs as subtle as the budget—while if they’re experienced, limits on the number of terms they can have pose the same problem; and if limits on the number of terms an official can serve are abolished, then, for all practical purposes, so are term limits—as we’ve noticed in the case of congressional incumbents.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Five Quick Takes

I.

I’ve been pretty quiet this October, obviously. Just this morning, I gave the second of two lectures on homosexuality and Catholicism at my parish, as part of our adult formation series, and composing those has taken up a lot of my energy and time. (Both talks, and the following Q&A sessions, were recorded; I’m hoping to post them here on the blog, if the files aren’t too ‘heavy’ to do so—they’ve been rather uncoöperative in e-mail, though I have found workarounds for that.) I’ve also been trying (and failing, but trying) to complete the last touches on my upcoming volume of poetry, Wells of Night. I had been hoping to finish and have it published before Halloween, but I think we may have to settle for before Christmas. Anyhow, if you’d like to pray for me, that’d be splendid.


II.

A close friend of mine (whom I refer to as Ceolfrith here on the blog) suggested to me recently that I adopt a technique he learned in his ongoing recovery from sexual addiction. You keep a pen or a marker with you—which, for me, means I mostly use the technique when I’m at work—and whenever you give in to a lustful impulse, you make a mark on your left arm, while conversely, when you notice such an impulse but turn to God in prayer instead, you make a mark on your right. At first I was reluctant to try the technique, because I thought it’d just leave my arms completely covered in ink (and not in a cool tattoo way). But I decided to give it a try anyway.

At the end of the first day, I’d made more than a dozen marks on my right arm and zero on my left. The mere concrete act of making the marks helped me turn to God consistently, and, what I’d expected even less, joyfully. Sometimes surprises are very nice!

III.

I’m a fan of the Pre-Raphaëlite poets and painters: Edward Burne-Jones, Christina Rossetti, Algernon Charles Swinburne, John Everett Millais, William Morris. They’ve been an influence on my own work, both fictional and poetic. Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the father of the movement, never had a particularly strong hold on me—I find his verse sort of wandering—but there’s a set of lines in his poem Jenny, written about a prostitute whose services he purchased, that have been recurring to my imagination powerfully of late:

Of the same lump (as it is said)
For honor and dishonor made,
Two sister vessels. Here is one.
It makes a goblin of the sun.

It captures an experience we sometimes have, rare but arresting: an abrupt vision of majesty in something that normally seems petty or commonplace or even unattractive. And then, without warning, it becomes (perhaps only for a moment) a vehicle of the whole brilliance of creation; every beauty and meaning seems to be wrapped up in it.


It happened to me once when my family were moving away from Fort Meade. It was a clear evening, and I happened to glance out of the sliding glass door in the rear of the house, which faced west, and noticed Jupiter. Suddenly I was overcome with longing, with Joy as C. S. Lewis described it, exultant and heartbreaking with loveliness. If I’d had wings, I would have flown straight toward the planet, as fast as I could. I’m not sure why this sort of thing happens, but it’s astonishing to feel.

IV.

Research for my second lecture on homosexuality took me through a lot of documentation of homophobic violence over the last fifty years. I hadn’t realized it was so grim. I had thought the Pulse massacre this summer stood out a lot more than it did. I knew trans bashing, specifically, was still huge and awful, but I hadn’t realized that queer bashing in general was still so common. I suppose in that way I fell for the myth of Progress.

But the cases, in horror and in sheer number, staggered me. We’re not making this shit up, and we’re not just being paranoid. A selection: in 1993, Brandon Teena was raped and murdered when two acquaintances found out he was transgender.1 In 1996, Jamie Nabozny was awarded $900,000 in damages in a suit against his high school, which had done nothing to discipline bullies who had verbally and physically attacked him for being gay, including staging a mock rape. In Hawaii in 1997, Stephen Bright beat Kenneth Brewer to death for making sexual advances on him after the two met at a gay bar; he received one year in prison for assault. In 1998, the notorious robbery, torture, and murder of Matthew Shepard took place in Laramie, Wyoming: he was left tied to a fence, in a coma, and died less than a week later. In 1999, a gay bar in London was bombed, leaving three people dead and seventy injured. In 2000, Christine Chappel, a twenty-eight year old trans woman, was murdered by her brother-in-law. Later the same year, Damilola Taylor, a recent immigrant to London from Nigeria, was stabbed in the thigh with a broken bottle after weeks of homophobic bullying; he bled to death. Aaron Webster was beaten to death by a group of men with baseball bats in 2001. In 2002, Gwen Araujo, a trans teenager from California, was strangled and beaten with a shovel after being inspected at a party by two men she had been intimate with. Two men stabbed Ryan Keith Skipper twenty times and slit his throat in Florida in 2007, later bragging that they killed him ‘because he was a faggot’; his body was dumped two miles from his home. In 2008, Allen Andrade beat Angie Zapata to death with a fire extinguisher after discovering that she was trans, referring to her as it in his arrest affidavit and telling his girlfriend in a taped phone call that ‘gay things need to die.’ In Massachusetts in 2009, an eleven-year-old boy hanged himself with an electrical cord after persistent anti-gay harassment from classmates. Fifteen trans women of color were murdered in 2012 alone. In 2015, Brian Golic (who identified as androgynous and pansexual) was stabbed to death in his home by his father. And this year, Omar Mateen shot one hundred and two people at Pulse, a gay club in Orlando, including himself; he and forty-nine others died.


Want me to stop? Yeah. So do I.

V.

It’s curious how hard it can be to go to bed. Even when you’re tired. And not just hard to pry yourself up out of the comfy chair you’re in, but hard to stop doing things so as to go to bed and sleep. Rest, of all things, shouldn’t be difficult; and yet it is. At least, it is for me—it’s probably a question of personality. The brain’s tick-tick-tick works differently in each of us, I expect: incessant for some, controllable for others (and for a few, hardly startable). But there’s a sort of false aura of romance to insomnia, so I’ve got that going for me.

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1Throughout my blog, I use the gendered pronouns preferred by trans people. Theologically, I don’t know what to think about transgender issues; however, I think it a matter of courtesy to respect others’ wishes, especially in such a personal matter as forms of address and I don’t like to violate courtesy without a compelling reason to do so—and I don’t consider my uncertainty a compelling reason to do anything.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

The Pattern of the Glory

I came
to the level above the magnanimous stair, and saw
the Empire dark with the incoherence of the houses.
Nay, there, as I looked on the stretched Empire
I heard, as in a throb of stretched verse,
the women everywhere throughout it sob with the curse
and the altars of Christ everywhere offer the grails.
Well are women warned from serving the altar
who, by the nature of their creature, from Caucasia to Carbonek,
share with the Sacrifice the victimization of blood.
Flesh knows what spirit knows
but spirit knows it knows—categories of identity …


—Charles Williams, Taliessin in the Rose Garden1


Lynton Lamb's map of the Empire as depicted poetically by Williams

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Having found a copy of the magnificent and tragically neglected Arthurian Torso in August, I was inspired at last to spring for a copy of Williams’ Arthurian poems (contained in the two books Taliessin Through Logres2 and The Region of the Summer Stars). They’re not all of equal value by any means, and our brother Charles writes some things which are hard to be understood, but I’m loving them. Truly good poetry can be surprisingly difficult to come by, and Lewis’ exposition in Torso makes for an incredibly rich, clear experience. So much poetry evokes emotion without explaining it, but his goes further: it not only evokes, but seems to illuminate the emotions, by showing how they are related to, or even participations in, transcendent metaphysical realities. ‘The glory is apt to dazzle the beholder,’ he says somewhere I cannot now find, ‘unless he already has a mind disposed to examine the pattern of the glory’; and examining the pattern of the glory is a very fair description of his whole corpus. Williams’ mythical map of Logres and the Byzantine Empire become a theological map of man—soul and body—and of the realms and journey of the spirit.


The line above, Flesh knows what spirit knows but spirit knows it knows, has really stuck with me. I think it expresses perfectly the challenging, delightful, frequently tense relationship between the soul and the body. The body has, if anything, fallen less than the soul, for of course the body has no deliberateness of itself and can’t carry guilt, and yet the soul still has to preside over the body.


For me, naturally enough, the place I notice this dynamic most is when I notice an attractive man.


You knew he'd be back eventually

My body responds, spontaneously: my heart beats a little more quickly, I feel warmer, perhaps my breath catches for a moment, perhaps I stare (though hopefully not, since that can be embarrassing and weird for all concerned). And my body is responding to a real good. It’s good that men should be handsome, or in more philosophical language, beautiful. My body’s response is a recognition of the fact. Even lust—which may, or may not, come on the heels of this recognition of beauty—is at least as much an affair of the mind as an affair of the body: partly because lust (unlike attraction) is an act of the will, but also because it involves the imagination.


The movement of the will that follows that moment of attraction, of seeing beauty and delighting in it, can go a few different ways. I can venerate: having received an experience of beauty as a gift, I can rejoice in the giver—both the celestial Giver who made it, and the created giver who bears it, i.e. the handsome dude. In so doing, I worship Christ-as-Beauty, and honor the man who displays it as an operative icon3 of the Mother of God.


Icon of Christ Pantokrator, 6th century

Alternatively I can lust, deciding to try and possess that beauty. Or, if that is too hard or daunting, to imagine possessing that beauty. We tend to think of lust as just doing something we’re not supposed to, although why we’re not supposed to never seemed very clear to me when I was growing up; God had forbidden it, but why he’d done so remained opaque. I think the key to it lies here: it treats the beauty of the body like property, and not as a gift, which is what it is.4 The body is the icon—more, the sacrament of the self, and every self is a gift, first to its self and its parents, and secondly to those to whom it gives itself. Lust is a kind of theft.

Flesh knows what spirit knows but spirit knows it knows. It may seem as if, of the two—veneration and lust—the latter suggests that flesh doesn’t know beauty very well. I don’t think that’s accurate. Both are movements of the will, not of the body; it’s true that the intensity of the body’s yearning may make sexual desire tough to discipline, but that’s because the body can’t articulate its knowledge, and issues only sensations, impulses, and pleasures (and their opposites). It requires an act of the mind to turn either to God or to oneself; beauty, perceived in the body, is only a prompting to turn.

Writing about Lancelot sleeping with a woman he believed to be Queen Guinevere,5 Williams described the fornication as the red carnivorous violation of intellectual love. That’s exactly what it is. Intellectual love—the capacity to see accurately and work for the real good of the beloved—doesn’t seek to appropriate beauty, partly because it isn’t selfish, but mostly because you can’t appropriate beauty. Not only is it a gift, but the beauty of others is a quality of those others, and the only way to obtain it is by total personal union, such that ‘Love you? I am you’6 is not a paradox but an observation. And that can be obtained only through total, reciprocal self-gift, which hell has no patience for, and is too proud for, and is too scared for. But ‘Hell is inaccurate’6: it’s the only way it can preserve its hellishness.


Dante Gabriel Rossetti, The Damsel of the Sanct Grael, 1874


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1This quotation isn’t meant to focus on the doctrine of gender and Holy Orders. It is, however, a recurring idea in Williams’ thought that the blood of menstruation is the share women have in the Eucharistic sacrifice (so far from being unclean, as it ritually was in the Torah; though perhaps even that uncleanness admits of more than one interpretation). E.g., in The Forgiveness of Sins: ‘The Rite of the shedding of blood for atonement or for achievement is accomplished. No other shedding of that kind is allowed, unless God permits and enforces [it] by physical states or spiritual or both. Women’s periods present the one; the death of martyrs the other; the Eucharist both.’ I’ve never come across another theologian who even tried to explain menstruation spiritually; but, if we’re going to admit that the divine image in man has any bearing on the body at all—and I think we must—then we must be prepared for some rather startling doctrines.
Caucasia and Carbonek are allusions to the geography of Williams’ Arthurian cycle. Caucasia is the easternmost province of the Byzantine Empire, and is associated with the zodiacal house of Libra and, anatomically, with the buttocks. Williams sees the buttocks as a symbol of balance and repose, and, considering their role in maintaining dignified posture whether seated or standing, there’s admittedly something to be said for the symbolism. Carbonek, or Corbenic, is often one of the names of the Grail Castle. However, in Williams it is rather the place from which the quest of the Grail is made: Carbonek is, in a way, at the limits of terrestrial geography.
2Taliessin or Taliesin (pronounced tal-ee-ESS-in) was a Welsh poet of the sixth century, and came to be associated with King Arthur in legend; Tennyson, I think, first depicted him as Arthur’s court poet, and Williams followed suit. The name Logres (LOG-ress) comes from an old Welsh word for England, and has been used as one of the names of Arthur’s kingdom since at least the twelfth century.
3Icon here is used in the Eastern sense: not mere depictions of God and the saints, but concrete instances of the redemption of matter, and thus vehicles of the Spirit. Even in the West (where the doctrine of icons has long been neglected), their status as sacramentals is admitted; and, while there’s doubtless some exaggeration in some accounts, there’s an extensive Eastern tradition of miraculous icons.
4This of course corresponds closely with the teaching of St John Paul II in Love and Responsibility and The Theology of the Body. I find Williams’ style (both literary and philosophical) more illuminating, but the doctrines they are examining are often the same, so a certain amount of overlap is to be expected.
5Lancelot was under a spell; long story. On the plus side, this ensured that Galahad was conceived, and so the quest of the Grail was not a failure even though it was not a success.
6Guess who said this! Who could it be!