Conjugal Friendship? Works for Me.

Maria Gwyn McDowell at WIT engages vigorously with Giacamo Sanfilippo’s post at Public Orthodoxy, and I agree with a great deal of what she says, particularly the non-remarkableness of a man who is a husband and father finding “ultimate satisfaction” with another man:

Same-sex theorizing rooted in Plato and Aristotle ought to recall that the beautiful satisfaction of male-male relationships (sexual or not) stood in direct contrast to the typically dissatisfying relationships with (supposedly) intellectually and ethically inferior females that were required for societal stability. Tying Aristotle and Plato to David and Jonathan does not help: David was married to multiple women whom he won as trophies and then spurned when they no longer served his purposes. Seriously, his relationship with Bathsheba was not his only problem.

I can see her point that “conjugal friendship” can be read as ambiguous, and will likely be constructed to mean “deeply intimate friendship without sexual congress” by those who are already persuaded that a sexual relationship between two persons of the same gender is and always will be inherently immoral. But given that “conjugal” almost invariably connotes “sexual” in colloquial English, I think it requires a willful refusal to avoid that meaning, similar to the willful insistence that “man” means “human” that plagues the official Vatican translators. And I’m done arguing with those people. (But it’s a good thing that not everyone is. Thank you, Maria!)

Instead, I want to dwell on Sanfelippo’s thesis itself, ignoring the both the language games and the weaknesses of his supporting arguments that Macdowell so ably points out.

To the question, “Can two persons of the same gender ‘have sex’ with each other?” we hear from Holy Tradition a resounding no. Yet if we ask, “Can two persons of the same gender form a bond in which ‘the two become one?’” the scales begin to fall from our eyes.

The reframed question breathes a life-giving word to this Catholic, attuned as I am to the uneasy union of the “relational” and “procreative” ends of marriage in Catholic magisterial teaching, and persuaded as I am that the relational must be constitutive of marriage as procreation obviously cannot be. “Conjugal friendship” beautifully describes the relational telos of marriage to my ears, embracing the possibility of procreation without insisting that it is essential. “Conjugal friendship” might, indeed, equally well describe a faithful same-gender relationship that partakes of the nuptial imagery between God and humanity. What lovely possibilities it opens up.

I realize that I’m plucking the opening of a conversation within Orthodoxy and adapting it to my Catholic context, and I make no claim that my comments apply to the Orthodox context. But I do like it in my own!

For readers who are scandalized by any departure from magisterial teaching on the essential nature of procreative (PIV) sex, I heartily recommend The Sexual Person: Toward a Renewed Catholic Anthropology, by Todd A. Salzman and Michael G. Lawler, which draws attention to some of the peculiarly narrow concerns of this teaching.

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Do you understand what I have done for you?

“What I am doing, you do not understand now,
but you will understand later.”

Jesus had gone on to explain that he was giving them an example, and that they should wash one another’s feet, so they had almost forgotten that promise of later understanding. Until it happened.

It happened differently for each of them, but it happened to all of them. Peter, Andrew, James, John — each of them, sooner or later, visited the home of a friend, and was offered the customary welcome of a guest.

John was conversing amiably with his friend when the servant came in to wash his feet, but broke off in mid-sentence. He couldn’t disregard the servant and keep his attention on his host, as good manners required. How could he? The last time anyone had washed his feet, it had been Jesus. The memories washed over him: Jesus, his beloved friend and teacher… Jesus, who was seized from them, beaten, and crucified. Jesus, whose death was the death of all their hope… whose resurrection was the astonishing confirmation of it. Jesus, the Lord, the Anointed One, the Son of God. Had washed his feet.

John touched the servant lightly on the arm, interrupting his ministrations, and the youth looked up, startled. “What’s your name?” John asked, meeting his gaze.

“M..Matthias, my lord,” he stammered

“I am not your lord,” the apostle replied gently. “My name is John. Thank you for washing my feet.”

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Elizabeth on Mary, Dorothy on Therese, Ramona & Ingrid on Clare: Book Fair Finds for Women’s History Month

My church library had a used book fair this past weekend, and I came home with three books:

Truly Our Sister: A Theology of Mary in the Com800337munion of Saints by Sr. Dr. Elizabeth Johnson, which she wrote more or less together with Friends of God and Prophets. I’m most excited about this one, because I’ve been meaning to get it for years, and my interest was rekindled when I read FOGAP with a small online group last year during Easter season. Maybe we can do Truly Our Sister the same way – anyone interested?

203984Therese, by Dorothy Day: This was not quite the book I originally thought it was, because all I saw was a slim white volume with Dorothy Day on the cover and that was enough for me to pick it up, because I don’t own anything on Dorothy Day. I was a bit disappointed when I saw it was actually about Therese of Lisieux, because I’ve heard rather a lot about “the Little Flower” since I was a little girl. But then I got to wondering… what would Dorothy Day of the Catholic Worker Movement have to say about this young woman who is normally portrayed with such cloying sentimentality? Hmm! So I decided it’s a better find than I first realized.

Praying3609776 with Clare of Assisi, by Ramona Miller & Ingrid Peterson: This is part of a series Companions for the Journey, about praying with the saints. I picked it up because I think Clare typically gets overlooked: everyone knows Francis of Assisi, but I never really learned much about Clare until grad school, and was keen on the fact that she was the first woman who wrote a Rule of monastic life for nuns that was accepted — all the previous communities of women lived according to a Rule that was written by a man. (Why did I have to go to grad school to learn this??) And because it is Lent, a book on praying with Clare seemed very timely.

What are you reading for Lent, or Women’s History Month, or both?

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Asking for Better Homilies: A How-To Guide

Some of us were dismayed and disappointed at the preaching we heard this weekend, which expounded on the Beatitudes without making even a veiled reference to the Muslim ban (aka executive order prohibiting entry to citizens from seven majority-Muslim countries, even refugees).  I generally try to engage with clergy when something like this happens, privately after the service is over.

Glad you asked, Kevin! So here’s a little how-to guide.

(Note: This post is written from my Catholic perspective, but much of it will be applicable for readers of other traditions as well. In most cases, Catholics hear homilies/sermons at Mass from priests, who are male, although deacons (also male) may also preach and sometimes do.)

First of all, the standard guidelines for giving constructive criticism apply: do it in private, do it respectfully and calmly. (If you’re not calm enough immediately afterwards, maybe go home and write an email later instead.) Talk about the thing, not the person, and talk about this specific instance.

Good: I was troubled by the homily today

Bad: I can’t believe you didn’t even mention refugees – you never talk about what’s happening in the world when you preach!

Always lead with praise for what you can. Was there anything in the homily that you liked, or made you think? Was there anything else during the service that you can comment on appreciatively?

Then, especially if your feedback has to do with anything that is remotely political or controversial in your congregation, be sure to express sympathy for the difficult position that he’s in. It’s hard to preach to a large congregation of people that need or want different things from the preaching they hear, especially in parishes with diverse political views.

I think the best approach to the actual feedback is to frame it as a pastoral matter. Most clergy take pastoral care seriously, so share the spiritual needs you had that were not met by the homily that you got.

Good: With everything in the news and the Muslim ban this weekend, I’ve been very distressed and afraid about what is going on in the country. I came to church hoping for some clear guidance and encouragement to do the right thing [especially after I heard X in the readings], because it’s not always easy to put my faith into action. Even when I’m pretty sure what the right thing is, it helps to hear it from the pulpit, and to see others in the congregation nod in agreement — it helps me realize I’m not alone.

Bad: This text is so clearly applicable to the current situation, I can’t believe you didn’t preach on it. You should have said X, Y, Z, and tied in this element of the first reading, too.

Pro Tip: Do not, repeat, do not engage in exegetical or hermeneutical critique. Resist the urge to describe the sermon you would rather have heard. Go home and write it on your blog instead.

Regardless of how he responds to you, be sure to end by thanking him for his ministry and all his hard work. Priests work hard, and as the priest shortage worsens and parishes get larger, they work harder and harder. People are often quick to criticize and rarely praise, so this can go a long way.

For the same reason, make a point of always thanking the priest after mass for things that really helped you, or spoke to what you needed, or that you really liked. Do it every time – it only takes a minute. Not only is this worth doing for its own sake: it builds up evidence of good will over time and establishes a basically positive relationship, so when you do offer criticism, he’ll be more likely to be able to hear and consider it, instead of going instantly on the defensive, or immediately dismissing it on the grounds that you can’t please everyone.

In fact, if you’ve never given feedback to this priest before, don’t start by bringing up something negative. Wait until you’ve been able to say something positive a few times first — and then wait for the next negative thing, don’t rehash this one.

So, to recap:

  • Be calm, respectful, and specific
  • Lead with praise for what you can
  • Sympathize with his difficulties
  • Frame your concern in terms of your own spiritual needs
  • Sincerely thank him for his ministry
  • Take every opportunity to express appreciation and develop a basically positive relationship

And one last thing — don’t forget to pray for your priests. As we depend on them for pastoral and spiritual care, so they should be able to depend on us for intercessory prayer. Pray that God will strengthen and sustain them in their ministry, console them in their difficulties, enlighten them with wisdom to discern how best to care for their flock, and fortify them with whatever graces they may need.

Readers, do you have any additional advice to share, or stories about how giving feedback worked out well for you? Would any preachers among you like to weigh in? Please share!

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Today, Christ is born!
Today, Salvation appears!
Today, on earth, angels sing,
archangels rejoice,
the just exult,
Glory to God in the Highest,

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Phrases and Shapes in Two Languages: Hail Mary, Ave Maria

maria_gravida_or_mary_at_the_spinning_wheel_from_nemetujvar_c-1410_hungarian_galleryThe other night, I got to praying/playing around with the Hail Mary in both English and Latin, and found some interesting differences in shape.

Here’s the traditional text, as every English-speaking Catholic child learns it:

Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee.
Blessed art thou amongst women,
and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
Holy Mary, Mother of God,
pray for us sinners,
now and at the hour of our death,

The line breaks represent the typical phrasing when it is recited.

Most Catholic children learn this prayer when they are very young. It may not be until later that we learn to recognize the scriptural origin of the first half of the prayer.

The angel appeared to Mary, and said to her:saint_gabriel_-_stained_glass_window_in_the_cloisters_of_chester_cathedral

Hail Mary, full of grace: the LORD is with you.

Her cousin Elizabeth, who was great with child in her old age as the angel had foretold, greeted her and said:

Blessed are you among all women,
and blessed is the fruit of your womb.

Because of the last phrase of the prayer, many Catholics say a Hail Mary when they hear a siren or see an ambulance; and of course it is traditional to pray at the bedside of someone who is dying.

Holy Mary, Mother of God,
pray for us sinners,
now and at the hour of our death,

So I’m starting to see this shape, here: downward (angel from God), parallel (Elizabeth to Mary), upward (soul to heaven).

And then I decided to start praying it in Latin.

I had a couple of years of Latin in high school. It gave me enough background in the language that the Latin texts I sang in choir are reasonably comprehensible to me, so I’m actually reading the Latin, not just sounding it out. Here’s how it reads in Latin, with line breaks again indicating the phrasing that is natural to me when I recite it.

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Advent, Day 9: How can God bear to look at us.

Word: God(Damn)It*
Verse: Isaiah 23:5

Note that Isaiah 23 is not included in the Catholic Sunday lectionary. Since Catholics mostly hear the bible at mass, most of us don’t know this text.

*I said I’d put profanity behind the jump, but I’m reading this as religious discourse, not cursing.

People and priest shall fare alike:
servant and master,
Maid and mistress,
buyer and seller,
Lender and borrower,
creditor and debtor.

Water protector and pipeline constructor,
black victim and white police officer,
Immigrant and ICE agent,
landlord and renter,
Politician and constituent,
vigilante and victim.

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Advent, Day 7: Questions, Questions, Questions

You know that thing where you read a story from scripture and ask yourself, who in this story do I identify with? I did that thing. This is what happened.

Word and verse below the jump.

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Advent, Day Five: She Who Is

Word: Bloody
Verse: Isaiah 4:5

What if we read the LORD in Isaiah 4:2-6 through a womanly metaphor? as She Who Is, the one who writhed in labor to birth creation?

On that day,
The branch of  She Who Is will be beauty and glory,
and the fruit of the land will be honor and splendor
for the survivors of Israel.

Read that through the lens of abuse and rape and war and violence.

Everyone who remains in Zion,
everyone left in Jerusalem
Will be called holy:
everyone inscribed for life in Jerusalem.

Every one of the survivors will be called holy, and written into the book of life.

When She Who Is washes away
the filth of the daughters of Zion,
And purges Jerusalem’s blood from her midst
with a blast of judgment, a searing blast,

How would She wash the filth and the blood from those who have survived such things?
Gently. Lovingly. Tenderly. Carefully, so as not to hurt the bruised and broken flesh of her precious daughters any more than it had already been hurt.
Fiercely: with a fierce protective love that repudiates any possible blame or shame, that cleanses and purifies.

Then will She Who Is create,
over the whole site of Mount Zion
and over her place of assembly,

A smoking cloud by day
and a light of flaming fire by night.

Oh, then! The Holy Presence that abides and accompanies and protects, that led the people out of slavery, hid them from their pursuers, and journeyed with them in astonishing intimate immanence!

For over all, Her glory will be shelter and protection:
shade from the parching heat of day,
refuge and cover from storm and rain.

Glory as protection and shelter from shame.
Glory as refuge and sanctuary.

She Who Is takes the bruised and broken and bloody survivors of violence, washes their wounds with Her own hands, abides among them, and dresses them in Her holy glory!

Glory, glory, glory…

…sings Hope.

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Advent, Day Four: Trumpet Blast

This year, I’m following along with an unusual Advent devotional that renders the anger and outrage of the prophets into contemporary colloquial language. Each day, there’s a word and a bible verse. On days when the word is an expletive, like today, I’ll put it behind the jump.

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