The plot thickens

I know I promised I’d be talking about books and stuff, but shit’s been real, guys, and I have to get this off my chest.

Although I have not wanted to admit this to myself, the past couple of years really has been a protracted crisis of faith for yours truly as a Catholic, with the last few months being particularly acute. I’ve tried to tell myself that this has just been limited to particular, isolated moments (which I sometimes have touched upon here), and that I picked myself up from these after maybe a bad week or so. To a certain extent that’s true, in the sense that getting back on your feet after having been punched in the face is a recovery of sorts, but you still have a mess of blood and broken bone to deal with. You’re still left weaker, and this stuff has been part of a general decline that I haven’t been able to turn around.

My relation to the Catholic faith has been one which has shifted from an acceptance of its teachings and attendant pains, something which was more of a love affair, to one which can only engage with it in a far more philosophically tortured and doubting manner; one where the life of faith is a sort of impersonal, rarefied system of thought that you awkwardly attempt to apply to your life; and I haven’t succeeded in getting back to the former state. I don’t mean here a normal spiritual dryness, but rather a palpable disconnect and alienation, the faith becoming something other, ethereal, external to me and the world I inhabit – that it’s something I can only parrot and not truly live. And, as I think I said in an earlier post, you can’t make sacrifices to an abstract, distant thing.

When you can’t escape that gnawing emptiness, it becomes easier to sin. You can go through the sacramental rigmarole, but it feels more like a pause button than anything else, and the situation just perpetuates itself, and gets worse. So you’re also trying to fend off despondency and despair.

It may be that, in my early years as a Catholic, I was so eager to be that 100% orthodox convert poster boy that I swallowed whatever misgivings I may have had at the time, and that now they’re getting revenge upon me. Maybe it’s my fault.

The intellectual advantage, in theory, of being Catholic is that you have an epistemological leg up on everybody else. Human experience is a murky place full of personal and cultural blind-spots and limitations. The Church, in her infallibility, provides the correct interpretation, and thus is the only institution capable of having a final word on human affairs. I do doubt this.

And this doesn’t stop the contemporary magisterium from making things a hermeneutical nightmare. A recent example: the change in the catechism declaring the death penalty to be intrinsically evil. The outcry over this was less about the death penalty per se, but rather that Catholic tradition has long taught that capital punishment is just, and so breaking with that carries some unfortunate implications. An institution which consolidates this amount of authority while also playing fast and loose with the truth starts to look totalitarian.

Of course, there are ways out of this; there are different levels of magisterial teaching, not all of which are infallible, that need to be weighed against each other. But now we’ve moved away from the realm of the everyday man in the pews and towards the theological specialist. The teaching office of the Church becomes something which itself requires interpretation and commentary in order to bring into a harmonious whole.

Traditionalists, in their critique of a lot of the post-Vatican II Church, strike me as the ones who are the most internally consistent in their belief in how the Church has historically understood herself, and the social/political implications of that. But aside from a preference for the Tridentine rite, their mindset and way of life is something which I’ve never been able to appropriate, not without cognitive dissonance. They’d might as well be from another planet.

In the answers I seek, I just find more doubts and questions, having felt not so much like I have found an epistemological escape door, but rather have only wandered into a particularly arcane mode of human experience.

Anyway, you can’t have “being serious about your religion” always = “writhing in existential torment” and not have it take a toll upon you. It’s an enervating and corrosive war of attrition. And it ate away my faith.

It didn’t help that, as this crescendoed in me, all the new revelations and scandals about the Church hierarchy were blowing up, showing that my already admittedly pessimistic outlook on the hierarchy was, in fact, a little too on the sunny side. That realization fucked me up more than I thought it would, because I couldn’t find any substantial consolation or hope to cling onto. All the reminders of ex opere operato, or that the human ugliness on display could not trump the fundamental divinity and holiness of the Church have felt so abstract and immaterial. So I was left with, not just a lack of faith, but a fundamental lack of trust in the Church as a human institution.

But I’ve been good at papering this over. I have, by nature, a non-confrontational, go-along-to-get-along personality, which is not without its benefits. It does, however, run the risk of a certain obsequiousness and passivity. I’ve at times allowed bad relationships in my life to fester because of it. A big shock for me, recently, has been realizing just how much my continued relationship with the Church has followed this pattern and operated more out of inertia than anything else. This has also, I think, been reflected a bit in my blogging habits; my turn away from a willingness to be up and personal with Catholicism in my writing was perhaps a little motivated by the fear that things would blow up if I did.

Anyway, the new year so far has been my attempt to reckon with how what was there is no more, and that a gulf has appeared between myself and the Church that I don’t have the wherewithal to cross. It all queasily resembles aspects of my conversion: the realization that my trials and perambulations had changed me in some irrevocable fashion and had separated me from the way things used to be.

But I am older now, with at least enough self-awareness to know that one of my difficulties is an inability to cope with the absence of closure. Part of the appeal of conversion to Catholicism for the younger me was the seeming closure it would provide: reception into the Church would be the climax of my life’s drama, and everything else an extended epilogue. This is something which is both really silly for someone in their early 20s to think, but also something you need to be very young to half-believe, in that you still haven’t quite grasped how life proceeds onward irrespective of your own narrative conceits.

There is indeed part of me which thinks that I can close the door on all the drama of the preceding years by walking away from the Church. End chapter. But I suspect things are not that linear and pat, and I have my doubts that trying to scrub my all my Romish inclinations away would be successful, any more than trying to efface my gay inclinations. In some fashion or other, it will haunt me.

And, indeed, my whole time in the Church, viewed even from a non-theological standpoint, strikes me as quite necessary: I needed to undergo what I did in body, mind and spirit, to allow my imagination and intellect to be so molded by the Church and gain a rootedness in something so antique and foreign to what I had known up to that point. It was the one thing needful in my education, something that you really cannot get from the modern, secular world.

Also, it continued what I have found to be a running theme in my life: see as the outsider or alien. First in my Jewish heritage, which has always impressed itself upon my imagination since I was a child, perhaps doubly so because I was implicated in it without it being mine to completely own (the line of matrilineal descent not having been preserved by my parents), the image of the hated exile with some terrible destiny. Secondly in growing up queer, which was the first thing that Only Happens To Other People which happened to me.. Then finally in stepping outside of secularism into the strange, wooly world of Catholicism. In these cases, I found myself with grammars that were slightly different from what my peers were using. You see how things that seem inevitable may not be so, and that there are often things in the gaps and silences. There’s some value in this.

All the same, I can’t claim with a straight face to be in good standing with the Church at the moment, nor do I have the ignorance or cognitive dissonance required to believe that flouting the doctrines of the Church is compatible with being a good Catholic. Attempts to soften the Church into something anodyne and easy to digest are unpalatable and tacky as hell. I have seen your heterodox theologies and find them silly.

The best I can call myself is a lapsed Catholic.

So I don’t know. I don’t know what the future is for me. Perhaps I am merely on the precipice of rediscovering the faith anew, a re-conversion of sorts, since what seems insurmountable to me may not be so to God. Worse cases than myself have likely done so.

I don’t have answers, but I don’t think things can go on the way they were. 2019 is an interesting year so far.

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About Josh W

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2 Responses to The plot thickens

  1. Gaheret says:

    Gird up your loins, Josh. You´re the one who taught me what that means. I knew you were suffering and in darkness, but reading about your fall from the Faith is like reading that you´ve shot yourself.

    You know, you´re a brother for me. An enlightened older brother whose cleverness and holistic vision in all matters of art, science and theology I truly admire, a suffering brother who I know to have been through hell again and again, a humble and humorous brother who has struggled in the paradox and agonized and seen providential, salutary, corredemptive meanging in even the heaviest of burdens, an unique brother who walked to Christ while being gay. You´re one of the few members of my family in Christ who could see the enormous Cirque du Freak we humans are, we Churchmen are, the Story of Salvation is, and notice the deep wonder. To some extent, your work is this permanent rebellion of the meaningful against the meaningless.

    I´m not gay, but if you could see my face the Jewish heritage would be obvious, I have never met another Christian who likes Wolfe, and we even share a first name. You probably know already, means “God will add”. Like Job of which you have spoken here, like Franz Werfel´s Jeremiah, you were agonizing these months, but truly bearing fruit and giving light, at least to me. I didn´t know that the darkness had lasted for years, but I won´t sit here and hear that it was all a lie. I wholeheartedly believe, and you said it here, that a kingdom which falls is temporal and finite, but if you´re damned something infinite and eternal dies.

    You have always brought me light, and your world is unlike any other, full of strange wonders: I just don´t want you to be lost forever, I refuse, I will fight. And if it is so for me not even knowing you in person, much more stronger will be in Our Lord.

    So I beg you: please, please come back while there´s still time. No matter how great the darkness, no matter how great the gulf, through the unconditional assent of the mind to the received truth you cannot fully grasp you will have faith again, if you receive the grace. And through repentance and confession, it will be living faith. Even if it´s time after time, even if feels pointless, even if you feel and cannot but think that you´re being an hypocrite in doing so, I believe that it will happen more than I believe that I´m writing this just now. You know that Mother Theresa went through doubt, darkness and torment while clinging to God, and St. Therese of Lisieux, and St. Damian of Molokai, and St. Catherine of Siena, and Francisca Xaviera del Valle, and Tolkien, all of them in the dark for years and years. I´m not saying that doing so will solve any of your problems or alleviate your suffering in the slightest , I cannot tell you that it will be better or that you will finally achieve salvation. I do not know that, but I know that you quoted the words of Peter when everyone was departing, that you once believed that there was nothing else that Christ or death, and I know you will receive the grace for a “fiat” if you ask for it. And as long as that window it´s open, there will be hope, spes contra spem.

    You´ve been declining for years. I can understand that, at least a little. You hoped to reach a love which would turn the waste into a fertile land: I can relate to that. A high point of my life was realizing just how deeply cold I am, and how I suck love and wonder around me while maneuvering so I wouldn´t respond, like an enormous labyrinth of traps and false doors: you said truthfully taht we are a bunch of dark secrets, and that realization is still my biggest fear. The love of the first hour, which was so significant for you due to the circumstances of your life, and the Thomistic, Flanneryesque bizarre-yet-wonderful, sacramental light you had to see things with new colour and fire and that enlightened me too, has disappeared, I can understand that too. But you know, or knew, that faith is a dark habit, that you cannot grasp its trascendent object, but you can say that you believe whatever the Church has received, anything the Church has received, as St. John of the Cross said. If you sin, you can repent. If you sin more and more, you can still repent. Please parrot it, please sacrifice to it once more, with just the mind, with just a word.

    It seems like a twisted dream one would want to walk out of, sometimes. But there´s also a joy you could saw once, and Our Lord really doesn´t take away anything of which makes life great or beautiful.

    You have doubts about doctrine. But think about the faith of the simple, who do not really understand anything, or almost, and are still sanctified. You said that the objects of this new world would be bizarre and alien, a black box, an Other, an unfamiliar Leviathan and Behemot, that every sort of adventure had its mysteries, trials and pitfalls: you didn´t expect to understand everything. About the death penalty, Our Lord stopped for His own reasons an execution which was legitimate according to the Law of Moses: it is so hard to believe that his Church may do the same? According to the text, the condemnation of death penalty it´s only due to our current historical situation: not intrinsically evil, but contrary to the spirit of the Gospel. You noted once that the language of teaching a divinely revealed dogma, and anathematizing the opposing position, is key that the doctrine is being offered as infallible. A non-infallible teaching and a prudential Pontifical prohibition would be compatible even with a dogma about its legitimacy in principle (which to this day I haven´t found to be the constant teaching of the Church, but I´m no more than a child in these matters). But even that´s besides the point: He taught with authority, not like the scribes: He teaches us through his authorities and prophets as He did in the past, be them (as we are) faithful or unfaithful, coward or corageous, traitors or saints. And you talked about the art of accepting somebody else’s thoughts, words, insights, and dwelling in them until they become your own as well, about the leap of faith, about the “yes, my understanding is totally inadequate, but I believe.”

    You also are scandalized by the sins of the pastors nowadays. But we´re not made saints by Baptism, but remain sinners full of unspekeable darkness who wilfully reject love, and they are the same. And even so, Caiphas the hypocrite and killer prophesized due to his charge. In the See of Peter, the light of truth will never be corrupted, whatever main happen. That´s what the simple know, and they´re right, even if they mix things it or don´t understand them: the learned can distinguish things the simple cannot, and deepening their understanding of them: but if they trust their own knowledge against the teaching Church, they may be better off if they were ignorant. Totalitarian it may seem, but how is an indefectible but sinful teacher to be, if one doubts he is gifted with indefectible truth? You explained the gift of the Pope in this blog: traditionalists may be right about a lot of things, but if they reject the obedience to the Pope or the Council, they will be fundamentally wrong, for we are disciples and not masters. Whoever who can´t say, as you did, “if I make any errors here, I of course defer to the Church”, it´s building over sand. By all means, look for answers, fight with God, understand things slowly, but don´t turn from the only fountain of truth and life. Turn to the better side of the Church of today, to the saints and the martyrs, of whom there are more than ever.

    You said that True Love was a gift which you should hold onto, no matter what the costs. You were convinced that Catholicism is true. You have eaten the Flesh and Blood of the Lord, talked with Him, read Benedict XVI and Francis de Sales, defended and explained the Faith, exalted the Holy Virgin, been part of a Body, confessed your sins, prayed with the Hours. You have agreed with Peter when many disciples went away. You said that the Cross is an insane and extreme act of love, and that it would hurt to withdraw from it, now that you know it. You have hoped that God will wipe away every tear. You won´t find anything like that anywhere in the world of the mind or the world of men: “in refusing to await the time of promise, his life story disintegrates into a myriad of unconnected instants”. And you will truly remain rooted here as long as you assent to the mistery and stand in the the course of the stream of water which wells forth from the right of the temple, even if you don´t feel it or grasp it in all the days of your life.

    You like Wolfe, and the Old Testament, and metanarrative. Maybe in the story of your life there are more hints of the mission you should take, maybe your trials in effect made you less of a jerkass, as you said, with a purpose, as a vocation. You know the Eucharist is the one miracle that the Apostles did not see. You also know what is like to be the Other, the Jew, the Catholic, the Gay. The story you told just six months ago could end up being the story of a saint. I know that doesn´t mean a lot right now, but there´s something you can do, if you let yourself be guided to the unknown, to carry up your mission, terrible, intimate, funny, unique, if you keep trusting God, and to turn again to Him when you fail.

    So I appeal to, I urge, I beg you, my brother, to present your body as a living, heroic sacrifice to God through acceptance of Him and His Church, to view once again the sufferings you face as a mysterious way for Christ’s Passion to extend outwards into your own life, much like the Eucharist. I urge you to be a martyr, to go back, to take it all in it´s unspeakable agony and darkness and offer it up, to embrace the Cross as the spes unica. As for me, I´ll be praying and sacrificing daily for you as if you were the only member of the Church, or the only human being in the whole world.

    • Josh W says:

      I don’t know what to say. I have not thought much of this little blog. The idea that it could so move a stranger in this fashion is…that someone could look up to me for it…well, again, I don’t know what to say. Thank you. I write some things and forget about them, and don’t realize how those moments are always still present before the reader, who is often invisible. You probably know its contents better than I. That a stranger would be sacrificing for me is almost too much. It’s moving, and it also makes me feel like I am hurting you. It fills me with compunction.

      If this winds up being the manner by which God drags me back, I don’t know what to say about that. It’s in the early hours, and I am too exhausted to say much coherently

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