Sunday, February 26, 2006

sin and reconciliation

Dante by William Blake: the burden of the proud in Purgatory.

We are preparing the child, filius imperatricis pulcherrimae Africae occidentalis, for his First Communion next May (he and his mother were both baptized last Easter -- he is ten years old). Part of this is his first Sacrament of Reconciliation which will take place, appropriately enough, next Saturday, the first weekend of lent. Preparing him forces me to think about how I relate to this sacrament, and I think I will confess myself next Saturday.

In my childhood, it was still a sacrament of guilt and darkened confessionals, sins reckoned up number by number, and a rushed series of Hail Marys as penance. My eight-year-old examination of conscience consisted of a panicked wondering about what sins I had committed. A quick survey of the Ten Commandments would give me enough ammunition to last through the frightening ordeal. Had I taken the Lord's name in vain? I must have said "God" inappropriately sometime. There's no way I could have always honored my father and mother. Bearing false witness meant lying, right? There's no way I had always told the truth. Armed with three broken commandments, I was ready to kneel down and whisper at the priest, sure that I must have sinned, though I may not have been aware of any particular occasion. I had enough material to get through the confession, mutter ten Hail Marys at breakneck speed, and get back into the sunlight and play, my soul shining with newfound cleanliness.

I think as a child I did appreciate the feeling of absolution, but I never really understood sin. The first time I went to confession as a believing adult was December 2004, and I haven't gone back since. That time I went to an understanding Jesuit and discussed all the difficulties that had arisen from my rejection of the Church as a teenager, and there really was plenty to talk about. Since then, it's been a bit more difficult. Oh, of course, there have been myriad failings on my part, but scanning the Decalogue doesn't seem to be that helpful to me. Counting individual trespasses does not aid to show me how and when I have fallen away from God -- which is, of course, what sin is about. Mortal sins--grave sins committed in the full knowledge that they are sins as a free, willful act--are actually easy to avoid committing in normal situations. Still, that is far from making us perfect and holy.

Reaching back into the tradition, I find the Seven Deadly Sins to speak to me about sin very clearly. Originally written about in a different form by the fourth-century ascetic and theologian Evagrius of Pontus, they came almost in their classic form to the West through the writings of Gregory the Great. Pride, greed, lust, sloth, wrath, gluttony, and envy: these are not individual crimes, rather they are habits of mind that cause us to think and act in ways that injure one another and take us away from God.

It is not surprising that it was first formulated by Evagrius at the dawn of Christian monasticism. Truly dedicated ascetics who mortified themselves in astounding ways on a quest for perfection are not likely to engage in egregious acts of sin, such as theft or adultery. They are more likely to fall prey to modes of thinking and feeling that are damaging in a different way: pride in their asceticism, sloth when they are tired of constantly singing psalms. The numbering up of individual acts of sin became more of a part of confession when the penitential lists of the evangelizing Irish monks were applied as a pastoral remedy to the problem of how to explain sin to an uneducated laity.

Now that we are no longer uneducated, we need more than simple lists of sin. I know that especially in the present political situation, I am not free from anger or from pride. Anger when I read the news, pride when I feel I somehow have a monopoly on the truth. Of course, sometimes we should be roused by injustice, as Christ was with the moneychangers in the temple. But when we let that anger take over, we lose sight of justice and seek vengeance or the misfortune of others. We feel free to despise. In a word, we fall into the destructive lie of sin.

The idea of the Seven Deadly Sins is useful because it identifies thought and intent, not just acts. Lust is a very good example. I think one of the greatest problems of the Church today is its focus on acts and not their meaning, especially in cases of sexuality. Sexuality becomes determined almost solely by biological imperatives (procreation) and not by intent and consequences. Thus a mistrust of homosexuality and an insistence on sexual asceticism that is difficult to achieve even by those who have sworn to celibacy, let alone by the laity (I'm thinking here about the classification of masturbation and birth control as sinful). It is true that sexuality is powerful, and one can sin by engaging in sexual activity. Sexual desire is not lust, sex is not lust. Lust is giving so into the force of sexuality that we become cruel and irresponsible--and I do believe more people give into lust than would admit it to themselves. I'm not ready to go into a full-scale critique of Paul VI's encyclical on birth control Humanae Vitae right here, but I think that a discussion of the sin of lust shows how we can avoid both an unhealthy kind of repressed fear of sexuality and a superficial and possibly dangerous concept of sexual freedom that does not take into account the power and consequences of sexuality.

Of course, there are people out there who have committed murder, theft, or adultery and need to confess those individual sins. They truly and deservedly feel a sense of guilt and the sacrament can be a great comfort to them. For most of us, it's a way for us to recognize those parts of us that are going towards God and those parts of us that are going away from God. It makes me happy to see that the Church that is preparing filius imperatricis pulcherrimae Africae occidentalis is a different one that prepared me. I'm sure it depends on where you are and what the priests are like. Please, find a priest who you trust and who knows it's your confession and your conscience. That makes for a good and meaningful Sacrament of Reconciliation, as well as true understanding of what sin is.

Saturday, February 18, 2006


The chains of St Peter in the Church of San Pietro in Vincoli in Rome. These chains have links.

I have refabbed my list of links in the sidebar. I will eventually add more, but it involves using html, which scares me, invokes nightmares, and requires a large amount of Bourbon afterwards. The sites I have linked to are worth it.

Of course, there's my homepage, which has some of my creative writing, both serious and goofy (the Fragmentary Writings of the Pseudo-Liam fall into the last category), as well as links to journals that have published my poetry. Some of the new links I have added are: Talmida's blog, which she uses to share some great insights she has had as a result of her study of Biblical Hebrew; the blogs of Tyler and Andrew, both of whom have dropped comments on my posts and who have similar feelings about their own Episcopal and Jewish traditions; and Catholicism, holiness, and spirituality, a "moderate, Jesuit-flavored blog," which I like both because of Steve's thoughtful posts and the quality of many of the comments -- even those I disagree with present their ideas respectfully and intelligently.

The ones that were here before: Fayrouz's blog, with the interesting perspective of an Iraqi Catholic living in the U.S.; my cousin's blog, featuring both his insight and his uncanny ability to find the oddest things on the net, William's blog which we all hope he will continue someday (please leave comments telling him to get blogging again); and the St Blog's Parish directory of Catholic blogs.

I will add more bit by bit--there are a lot of great blogs out there to be recommended. Happy reading, fellow travelers.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

car alarms

A medieval cart. Note the civilized lack of a car alarm.

The other night I was awoken by a car alarm. It must have been about two o'clock in the morning and the whistling and squealing went on and on for some time. Obviously the owner of the car was far away and oblivious, perhaps drinking in some loud throbbing frat boy bar or sleeping soundly with high-quality earplugs that he or she had had bought with great forethought, in case his or her own alarm would go off and disturb his or her beauty sleep.

Now, the population density in Manhattan is about 70,000 a square mile. Let's be generous to our car owner an imagine that the alarm was only audible for half a square mile. So because one person feels that his or her car security is so terribly important, 35,000 people are shaken out of their slumber. What an appropriate symbol for our self-centered, narcissistic and materialistic society. Oh, a car alarm! How cool! What do I care about the other 34,999 people around me?

How can a car alarm that goes on for a half hour protect your car? Obviously no one cares, or they would turn it off. If I were a car thief, I would seek out cars with alarms that sound for more than a minute -- I'd know the owner was far, far away. Think on that when you leave your car alone, the alarm armed and ready.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

More on the cartoons

A Muslim woman and a Christian woman playing chess from the 13th-century book on chess of Alfonso X of Castile-Leon.

Well, the uproar on the cartoons continues. I'd like to point people towards two excellent posts on the subject: Mad Canuck, who explains with detail how offensive the cartoons are, and Fayrouz, who as an Iraqi Catholic, has a great perspective from which to analyze this situation (and who has some kind words for my post). If you browse through the >60 comments on Mad Canuck's post, you will see a good representation of the kind of attitude that all three of us have warned against: the attitude that the situation is one of us against them, that the violence that has erupted is proof that the one billion Muslims in the world are all intolerant and barbarously aggressive, that they are all, in a word, our enemies.

Indeed, the situation has been very disturbing. Many people in the Muslim world have used the rage provoked by the cartoons for their own purposes. Radical anti-Western Islamists, regimes like that of Syria that prefer their people be enraged by an outside enemy and not by their own government, and the extremists in Iran all can gain from this violence. Those in the West who prefer the simple solution of hating all one billion Muslims are enjoying the violence as well. A handful of extremists carrying threatening signs are seen by many in the West as representative of Islam, instead of the vast majority represented by those who protest peacefully.

At the same time, many people ask, "All this over a cartoon?" The answer is "of course not." The cartoon was a trigger that released a flood of anti-Western feeling among many Muslims. "The War on Terror" is seen by many as a war on Islam, and by a number of people in the West as well. The war in Iraq, the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib and Gitmo, the treatment of Muslim visitors to the US, the uncritical support of Israeli human rights abuses, the rhetoric of many of our politicians, preachers, and pundits... Couple this with the marginalization of Muslims in Europe, laws against their traditions and a history of brutal colonialism... This is the context in which a radical demonstrator will hold up a sign asking for "Death to freedom of expression." Freedom of expression, liberty, democracy are words that swell our hearts in the US and Western Europe, but that don't resonate so much everywhere else--not because they aren't universal values, but because they are values that must be cultivated, not imposed, especially imposed by arrogant powers made wealthy from imperialism.

I do not excuse calls for violence and against freedom of expression. We must, however, make an effort to understand how those who oppose us see us. If the only answer we can come up with to the question "Why do they hate us?" is the vapid and simplistic "Because they hate freedom," we will be doing little more than continuing to contribute our share to misunderstanding and hatred, a misunderstanding and hatred that have had and will have brutal results. It is, as the prime ministers of Spain and Turkey have stated, in all of our interests to defuse this situation. I will not stand here wagging my finger and say, "the Muslims must do this, the Muslims must do that," when I know how much work we in the West have to do. We need to understand our own prejudices and our own policies. We need to get off the soapbox and, if we really do abhor the violence, start towards understanding.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

cartoons and crusades

A twelfth-century crusaders bids farewell to his wife.

I received an email from a friend about the controversy about the Danish cartoons which have provoked protest and threats of violence in the Muslim world. My friend is understandably upset about the attempt to silence the cartoonist through intimidation and he has written to the New York Times, asking them to publish the cartoons in solidarity with the cause of free speech.

I share his concern. At the same time, we must not forget that these cartoons are as vile as any anti-Semitic or racist propaganda. We should not censor them, and if we must publish them as a gesture for freedom of expression, we should do it with the same grim resignation that we would save if we felt obligated to publish excerpts from Mein Kampf or Klu Klux Klan leaflets. We should not only fight for the cartoonist's right to publish, we should denounce his bigotry. I denounce it here and I also denounce the publication and dissemination in Muslim countries of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. We should demand free speech everywhere as we condemn hatred and ignorance.

It is not surprising that one of the newspapers that printed the cartoons is produced by fundamentalist Christians. How are we going to convince the Muslim world that our policies are not anti-Islam "crusader" attacks when so many voices that identify themselves specifically as Christian make comments that are not only critical of extremism and terrorism, but of Islam itself. Not only our old buddy Pat Robertson, but many Christian bloggers I have stumbled across seem intent on demolishing any tolerance whatsoever for one of the world's great religions. Add to that a general who boasted that his victory over a Muslim warlord was due to the fact that "my God was bigger than his... his was an idol." And interrogation techniques that involve psychological torture specifically targeted to Muslim sensibilities, including abuse of the Koran? Is it surprising that many Muslims see this as a war of cultures? Unlike us, they have historical memory and are mistrustful of European and American aims towards the Mideast. Everywhere in the Middle East, extremists are gaining support -- In Palestine, Iran, Egypt... Do we really want to continue to define this conflict as a war of cultures, a war of religion? Especially when Christianity is supposed to be a religion of peace, love, and respect?

I don't know if there is a way to diffuse this time bomb. There are too many suspicions and prejudices deeply ingrained in the minds of everyone involved. I certainly don't mean to excuse attempts from individuals in the Muslim world from trying to silence thinkers or manipulate issues like this for political gain. The threats to Salman Rushdie and the murder of Theo Van Gogh were unpardonable. We must protect the right of freedom of expression of even the most vile of its practioners, but we should also try much harder to avoid fanning the flames of Holy War on both sides. We should be aware that fundamentalists on the Christian side of the fence are just as intransigent and dangerous. Last of all, those of us who really read the Gospels should know how to respond to a world-wide cultural crisis: with love and understanding, not with hatred and degradation. That's not rank sentiment: lives depend on it.