Sunday, February 4, 2007

A Confession Revisited

Caveat lector: This reflection was written nearly a year ago while I was wallowing in self-absorption. Today I am stuck in the same rut, and having pulled out this reflection, I am dismayed to discover how much of it remains pertinent today. If you are looking for a post slightly less drenched in self-pity, then scroll down to the latest Letter From Boylston Street. Otherwise, read on, and don’t say I didn’t warn you.


God is love, and whoever remains in love remains in God and God in him.
1 John 4:16

As each one has received a gift, use it to serve one another as stewards of God’s varied grace.
1 Peter 4:10

The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.
William Butler Yeats, “The Second Coming”

At this time in my faith journey, I face what you might call a little crisis of commitment. With that crisis comes another little crisis, of conviction. Whether one is the cause of the other is uncertain. Figuring out why I ought to do something perplexes me as much as deciding what to do. If I cannot know the why, then there is no what. Without the what, there is not even a question of why. Of course, I am not always in total ignorance of my vocation, though I must admit that total ignorance is more blissful than half-ignorance. Sometimes when I know what to do, the lack of why keeps me from doing it; and often I know why something has to be done, but I do not know what. I have learned how not to be so unhappy about these frustrating situations, but I yearn for the happiness that comes with knowing what to do and why I should do it. As a Catholic Christian, I believe that knowing and loving God in faith is the way to learning what to do and why it should be done. Yet how deep is that love? I do not fear doubt, for doubt must ride with faith, but does my craving for certainty of calling dampen that love? As we take a look at the road behind, the meaning of these crises of commitment and conviction may become clearer to you and me.

Jesus calls men and women to love their neighbors. This is charity, or agape, the proper response by those who know they are loved and have received so many gifts. I have received numerous gifts, and I have been given many talents, but they show little “profit”; my tree bears few fruits. I don’t know what I want to do with my gifts, and I don’t care enough to pray about the matter: I shrug it off. I lack the conviction and passion needed to use my talents. Ironically, I lack agape love because I lack its counterpart, desire, or eros. I have received, but am I really happy to have received? A singer sings for others, but that singer must first be happy to be singing, otherwise no one will draw near to listen. If it doesn’t please a singer to be singing, there will be no listeners; he or she ceases, and no one else can benefit, for there will be no birth of music. Thus agape builds upon eros. The builder who builds or the custodian who cleans up and is happy doing it because he or she loves the gifts of that work is opened up by that happiness to love others for their sake.

I have been an editor and a teacher. I have been a student, an employee, and a volunteer. I have lived up and down the state of New York, and in Baltimore and Boston. With the Capuchin Franciscans I have desired to leave the secular world behind, only to return to it with humility. Faith has taken me to places I never intended to go and works I never intended to do. Still, nearly ten years into this journey, I doubt whether I have truly loved or appreciate that I have been loved. Was I a loving editor; did I love teaching? Did I love in Baltimore, or did I ever love New York? Am I aware of God’s love (and yours) in Boston? I fear I seek God without passing on the gifts of God. I seek to share the gifts of love without any real sense of joy or happiness at having been so blessed by them. Eros is separated from the agape that perfects it; agape is not in touch with the eros that seeks it; and each is diminished. The result of this split is a paralysis of action. Acedia, begone!

When Jesus calls men and women to love their neighbors, they must love them as they love themselves. Knowing what personal state of life I should pursue would help me better fulfill the latter part of Jesus’ invitation. I am a virgin considering a calling to the celibate life, although I do not seek ordination in the Catholic Church. I believe God calls many people to celibacy, but most of them are not willing to accept this. Count me among them. Strongly do I believe I am called to be celibate, and I believe deeply in the goodness of celibacy, but these convictions give me no happiness. You see, I am not a virgin by choice, but of necessity, because I have never had a girlfriend or been in a long-term relationship. How am I to know whether celibacy is right for me without an experience of the emotional intimacy of a mutually exclusive interpersonal relationship? I worry that whatever state I ought to be in, I am missing my calling because of my lack of social skills. I recognize that I am not casual enough to be able to gain the confidence of a few beloved friends (especially female), nor am I intimate enough to retain deep, long-lasting relationships with them. Marriage looks like an impossibility, but I cannot confirm celibacy, and I doubt whether I could live up to either vocation. I’m a dissatisfied single.

Surely this attitude toward relationships is connected to my eros-agape deficit. The psychoanalyst Erich Fromm said men and women work harder at being lovable then at loving. Indeed, they pursue the former with a passionate intensity. I have been led by this temptation into many sins, for I have made an idol of my desire to be loved. I do not honor God when I pray with prayers that pretend to say “I love you” when they really mean “love ME.” Selfishly do I expect people to confide in me, sharing stories, sorrows, fears, and hopes. Wouldn’t it be nice to be sought after as Jesus was sought, with others reaching for the hem of your garment? This is but a daydream, because I do precious little to present myself as one approachable like Jesus. Without having demonstrated loving, who will come to you to be loved? Not knowing what deep happiness and unspeakable joy feel like, I crave them all the more, but only for myself. Eros turns me inward upon myself, and agape is left unpracticed, atrophied. Celibacy becomes a sentence, and I sit alone woefully ruing my lack of experience in human relationships.

Life would be so much simpler if someone with unquestionable authority would just tell me what to do. Even without the why, I would do it. However, life—and, more to the point, life’s creator—does not work that way. God made us to be free, questing spirits and gave us a deep longing for love through which we return to God. Jesus’ call for us to love one another is a commandment to end all commandments, because love, to be love, cannot be commanded at all. Love is an act of freedom. To have freedom is to make your own choice, and to have a questing spirit is to have questions that turn every certainty into doubt. I believe in a supreme authority, but it is not of this world, which is limited and changeable, and so while this authority gives the gift of love, it cannot give to me what I believe belongs only to itself—absolute certainty of commitment and conviction.

Feb. 12, 2006


To the above observation I would note that while the issues of agape-eros and relationships remain alive and burning, the crises of commitment and conviction have subsided a little. Not that I have resolved them entirely, but I feel some light has been shed on the questions of what and why. Ironically, that has led to a new and disturbing question: when. Not just when, but when, if ever. It is a crisis of confirmation, of chronos versus kairos, one felt acutely by many of the older seminarians with whom I study but which also leans heavily on me. When, if ever, will it be my turn to proclaim in word and deed, with unmistakable spiritual power, the coming of the reign of God? When, if ever, will it be my turn to give and receive love in a way that leaves no doubt that God has encountered us and changed us all? Will there ever be a time I share God’s love and mine with a partner? Will the community of the faithful confirm the calls that drive me and all my lonely brothers and sisters to these depths of longing? We wait for the inspired moment: that is, the movement of the fiery Spirit.

Letter From Boylston Street #3

One in an occasional series of reflections on homelessness and my duties as a pastoral intern at St. Francis House, a daytime shelter on 39 Boylston St. in Boston (

Previously I have written that homelessness is a state of being that transcends the material poverty that ordinarily gives rise to it. I say ordinarily because I contend that the state of being with which I associate homelessness may be experienced without material want. Any person who feels cast out of society or cut off from the community experiences the psychological and spiritual equivalent of homelessness. The psychological symptoms include fear, anxiety, depression, feelings of inferiority and worthlessness, and other marks characteristic of trauma. The spiritual symptoms include feelings of guilt, condemnation, and a loss of meaning.

Not all the students in the Moving Ahead Program, our social skills class, are homeless in the narrow sense of lacking shelter. Several are recovering from chemical addiction or mental illness or both. Several are recently paroled from the state penitential system. However, they are all, from the broader perspective I espouse, displaced persons, disaster victims, men and women without a firm footing in the world we have fashioned and to which we cling for sanity and stability. Please remember that there’s nothing intrinsically “wrong” with these men and women, and even if there was, that is not the issue; the problem is that they lack their rightful place in society. Our shelter’s educational services enable them to reclaim such a place. As the pastoral intern, I have been given two small projects within this greater reclamation project: 1) establish a hope-filled correspondence with prisoners waiting to enter our program upon release; and 2) tutor current and former students who seek to pass the GED exam or brush up on their skills.

One of the principal instructors has assigned three students to me. I met the first on Friday. Let’s call her Mallory. A week earlier the instructor prepared me with some basic information about Mallory and her needs. He provided the results of the pre-GED exam she had taken and indicated which skills needed the most development. He provided some resources from which I could build a curriculum for Mallory. But one of the first things he made a point of explaining to me was that Mallory was a transgender person. He said he didn’t know if I had ever seen a transgender person before, so he was telling me this so I wouldn’t be surprised by her. Prior to Mallory I had met three transgender persons. The first was a black transsexual female in Baltimore, a student in the adult education center where I volunteered as a teacher. She was not a student of mine, so I regarded her with polite disinterest. The second and third I met working as a canvasser for the Sierra Club last summer. One, a female androgyne, I regarded internally with disgust, and I never talked to her. The second, a male androgyne, eventually I got along rather well with, but at first repulsed me deeply. Even in his case, I never got over looking at him as a curiosity, a self-made freak, one not to be taken as seriously as any other person.

I spent two and half hours with Mallory on Friday leading review exercises in some basic principles of arithmetic. She had arrived 15 minutes late and was in little condition to learn, suffering badly from a chest cold. It was difficult to conceal my displeasure during the session as she repeatedly succumbed to spasms of coughing and phlegmy hacking. She complained she was hot; she complained she was tired. She said she had to get her nails done; she said she had to purchase her bus ticket. She lamented she wasn’t going to see her friend in Somerville; she lamented she was dying. We trudged through the exercises with as much good will as we could offer each other. Although I maintained a professional kind of cordiality, I couldn’t help but cringe inside.

I must confess that I was relieved when our session was over. Mallory had coughed on me so much, I was sure I had caught some germs. But I’m not so sure that was the chief source of my discomfort. Here’s the nagging question: would I have been so worried about catching a cold if it had been someone else, anyone else? A black, a Latino, a lesbian or gay or bisexual, a homeless person? Mallory was none of these. She was other than these, and this was an other I had not yet learned how to be at home with. I did not know how to make her feel welcome. I must have made her feel, in a word, homeless.


That evening I traveled to Jamaica Plain and attended a lecture by George Williamson, a retired Baptist pastor who had participated in the civil rights movement and later joined the antiwar and gay rights movements. The stories he told described his gradual liberation from the structural sin of racism, militarism, and heterosexism, a redemption he said was mediated by the Gospel example of Martin Luther King. His final story concerned crossing yet another frontier into freedom, beyond the wilderness of social sin, with his congregation. One day a cross-dresser entered his church and sat for the service. He received a hug from a woman sitting next to her during the passing of the peace. That woman, a lesbian, spoke to Williamson in his office afterward and confessed that she felt uncomfortable sitting next to the cross-dresser, to the point where she wanted to leave. However, she continued, that would have meant denying to the cross-dresser the same dignity and personhood she had long struggled to achieve. She concluded it would have been hypocritical for her not to welcome this individual. So she embraced the cross-dresser, albeit reluctantly. She said did not particularly feel the love of God between them, but she did her best to love the guest.

A little while later the cross-dresser entered Williamson’s office, lifting praise for his congregation. For the first time he felt like he belonged in a church. He said he was overjoyed because he had been welcomed so openly by the woman who embraced her.

Jesus liked to answer foolhardy questions with his own questions. When the scholar of the law who wished to justify himself asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” the question he received, after the telling of the parable of the Good Samaritan was, “Which of these … was neighbor to the robbers’ victim?” In doing this, of course, Jesus is turning the question backward and back on his interrogator. To ask who your neighbor is, is the wrong question; it is better to ask if you are being the neighbor. It’s another way, to quote George Williamson, of “Jesus jerking us around.”

Lord, help me to recognize the sin into which I was born, the sin that I have tacitly accepted and appropriated, the sin that I now confess as my own. Help me to love my neighbor like Jesus and make your mercy manifest. I cannot be a neighbor to the poor unless I make the poor feel at home with me. Let us rebuild homes for the victims of poverty, racism, militarism, and heterosexism; let us build homes for those who have yet to feel at home in our society. By your manifold grace let us become neighbors in your glorious kin(g)dom, Mallory and me. We’re not going to be redeemed apart from each other; save us now, and save us together.

Jesus, jerk me around if you must. Amen.