Tuesday, July 28, 2009

My Mother

One of the things that Catholics ought to be aware of is that conversion is, in almost all cases, a process. Even when it looks like an instantaneous moment of illumination, there is generally a long series of events that, in retrospect, are obviously recognizable as the hand of God guiding the soul towards conversion. To take, for example, the case of St. Paul: there is a clear moment of conversion, when he falls down on the road to Damascus and has a stunning vision of the risen Lord, but there can be no doubt that the words and the prayers of the martyrs whom he had a hand in bringing to their martyrdom had been quietly falling on his soul, like a secret shower of rain, preparing him for this blinding moment of truth.
In the life of any given Catholic there will probably be relatively few instances where you are actually there for the moment of realization -- where you get to see the work of evangelization springing to new life. It is beautiful to see, but the reality is that we are usually working in the dark, serving our brothers and sisters through word and example without seeing the fruits of our labours.
Yesterday, I set up the conditions of my turning away from God. In the next couple of posts, I am going to try to do my best to repeat a fruitful exercise which I discovered in the writings of Marcus Aurelius. Marcus' Meditations begin with a reflection on those who have led him to his current state of life, concentrating not on the trials and troubles that he has suffered, but rather on the good that has come to him through his relationships. I will begin with my mother.
My mother always insisted that I was going to come back to Christ. She didn't do it in a wild fanatical way -- my mother is nothing if not a practical woman. I would start trying to pick a fight about the Christian world-view, and she, without giving any good arguments at all, would simply insist that I would eventually come back to the church.
At the same time, she observed one of the major tennets of her philosophy of motherhood: "There are two gifts that we must give our children, one is roots, the other is wings." Yes, my mother is a sentimentalist, but that has never prevented her from being a good and wise mother.
Throughout all of the years that I was an atheist and a lesbian, my mother's primary role in my life was to be there, absolutely dependable, offering unconditional love. We faught, of course, as teenagers and parents will fight, but I never had the slightest doubt that I could do anything and she would forgive and continue to love me. She generally didn't argue and try to persuade me of things, because that wasn't what she had to offer, and in any case, I was of that persistent adolescent delusion that I knew better than my elders who were, for the most part, backwards fuddy-duddies (at least in my modern, enlightened, progressive opinion...)
Often parents confronted with a wayward child will take the opposite approach. They will see the problem as something that needs to be dealt with, right now, before the child falls any further into sin and error. They try to micro-manage the conversion back to God that they hope will take place, to force it to happen before any great damage is done.
Unfortunately, this cannot work. The parent is like the prophet in his hometown; they are generally too close to their children to be able to engineer the changes that they would like to bring about. This is especially true during adolescence, when the child is first spreading her wings and trying to get out of the nest. If the parent lets go, sooner or later the child will get her bearings, realize that she doesn't know everything, and start, tentatively, to develop a new, adult respect for her forebears. Through this process, we go from having respect for our parents simply because they are our parents -- the natural respect of dependant children -- to having respect for our parents because we can see their wisdom.
The two preconditions for this are unconditional love: an enduring interest in the good of the child that is not broken or weakened during the difficult period of rebellion and letting go; and trust: the willingness to genuinely let the child make her own mistakes, always believing that sooner or later she will find her way onto the right path. Cheesy and sentimental as the embroidered plaque over my mother's door is, it's absolutely right: roots and wings. If the former is lacking, the child will slowly drift away into her life and will never develop an adult respect. If the latter is lacking, the period of adolescent-style tension will draw itself out indefinitely, until either the parent learns to let go, or the parent dies. The mother who is still telling her forty year old son how to live his life, because she "sees no evidence that he is capable of taking real responsibility for himself" is directly responsible for the fact that he evinces no such evidence. She has not given him permission to grow up.
I want to begin then, by giving thanks to my mother, for giving me the invaluable gift of providing me with a solid foundation to which I could return when I found that my philosophies were crumbling around me, and also for allowing me to go out into the world to seek my fortune.

Monday, July 27, 2009

The Junior Atheist Division

Someone asked if I could elaborate on my own conversion story, so I'm going to try to do that. It might take a couple of posts, but we'll give it a go.
I was born into a liberal but quite devout Anglican home; I went to Sunday school, was part of the local parish's "apostles club," read abridged stories for children about St. Paul, and so forth. I liked our pastor because he gave sermons where he used Star Trek to elucidate spiritual points, and I never encountered any of the hatred, gay-bashing, etc. that are supposed to abound in Christian congregations. Church was a place full of wonderful old Jamaican women who cooked incredible jerk chicken, and nice middle-class white folks like my parents.
I was about twelve or thirteen when I started to have doubts about Christianity. I think that if I had taken these doubts to someone qualified they could have been put to rest fairly easily, but my mother was never someone with whom I could have debates, and my father and I tended not to talk about anything more complicated than squirrels and science fiction. At one point I did talk to my dad about God -- or rather, he talked to me. He said that the moment when he knew God existed was when he was out in the mountains in Western Canada. It was, I think, one of the only times when I had a sense of that deeper interior life that lurks beneath my dad's ability to recite Monty Python sketches by heart, and his extensive knowledge of the llama glama. It effected me much more than I ever said, but it was not enough to really put my doubts to silence.
The issue came to a head when my mother wanted me to get confirmed. I was of the proper age, and she assumed that I would go ahead and become a full member of the Anglican church. I reacted quite strongly against this, and we ended up fighting about it for several months.
Unfortunately, the only Christians who I really took my concerns to were my aunt's Gospel Hall congregation. We used to get summoned to their baptisms (adult baptism, full immersion) and the preacher would get up and beat the pulpit and admonish us sinners who were there to support our cousins. "Ye must be born again!" pound "Ye must be born again!" It really wasn't that far removed from the charicatures of fundamentalism that one sees in the media. In any case, I was sitting in one of their Sunday-school type sessions and they were expounding on how God would do anything that we asked of Him, and I expressed my reservations on this score. It seemed to me that they were promising a magician God, and I could see little evidence of this divine conjurer in my own life. The poor Sunday-school woman didn't seem to have ever encountered the junior atheist division before, and the conversation was not particularly enlightening. She quoted scripture, I profered exceedingly simplistic rational arguments, and neither of us went away enlightened.
So I became an atheist. Over the years, as I absorbed more and more of the anti-Christian memes that were circulating through the high-school atmosphere, I went from being a straightforward agnostic to a hardened atheist, totally derisive of the Christian faith, and convinced that if there was a God at all, it was not the God of Christianity.

Tomorrow, we'll continue.

The Simple Story

Sorry for taking so long to respond to all of your wonderful comments -- I've been very busy the past week writing a series for the National Catholic Register about Post-modernism, and canning cucumbers, corn, plums, and anything else that I can find growing about. There is a beautiful fermenting strawberry creature sitting on my table, but that is probably neither here nor there.
I should have been clearer. I don't have a problem with simplicity per se, when there is genuine simplicity, wed to genuine humility, it is exceedingly beautiful, like light flashing out through the clouds, and people react to it accordingly. Our jaded, "Oh, well, it could never be that easy..." reaction falls away, and we stop critiquing according to all of these ideas of sophistication, because it is absolutely real and undeniable. The problem is with the falsification of this. Because simplicity is such a beautiful ideal, and also because the simple version of the story is always easier to tell than the messy one, people who are in fact not simple will put on a simple facade when they are giving their testimonies. This is a particular problem in terms of the gay/lesbian conversion, because the reality is that simple people are not generally drawn to gay culture in the first place. That's not to say that simple people never experience same sex attraction, but that when they do they don't tend to go and hang out with the radical feminists, leather fetishists, Warholesque sophisticates, etc.
False simplicity, like false humility, false sanctity, and other false virtues, is invariably transparent. It sits in the stomach like rotten milk. That's why gays and lesbians have such a strong reaction against the standard ex-gay testimony -- not because they would react against genuine simplicity if they were to encounter it, but because those of us who labour under the disadvantage of complexity must be honest about the complications of our conversions.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Crowing from the Hills

"Just another Catholic mom" wrote, in her blog, that when she purchased Sexual Authenticity she was worried that it was going to be a "saved" lesbian crying from the hills that all homosexuals can be saved from homosexuality by prayer and the love of Jesus. She was relieved to find that it wasn't.
I was less relieved. We worked quite a bit to get the back-of-the-book text into a form that would suggest that this wasn't the standard sappy-clappy ex-gay conversion testimonial. For some reason, though, this standard keeps cropping up in various places.
For example, the first time that I did a radio interview to promote the book, I was strangely disappointed at the end of it. It took a couple of minutes thinking to figure out why; then I realized that I had been somehow or other guided into giving that standard testimonial. The "I felt God calling to my heart, and then He made me straight. Ain't Jesus wonderful!" story. Blech.
I'm not sure why, but for some reason Catholic publishers, radio hosts, etc. seem to be under the impression that modern Catholics want to hear this kind of rubbish. There's a sense that the streamlined, perfect, all-to-easy, glowing reparative therapy tale is going to be "edifying" to any poor sodomites who happen to tune in.
The reality, of course, is quite different. People with same-sex attractions are never edified by the standard testimonial, because they don't believe it. They don't believe it, because it isn't true. It's too good to be true. It's too clean. Not messy enough. More to the point, it's bad plotting. It's a contrived tale: very predictable. You can tell exactly what is going to happen at every point along the road, the end is implicit in the beginning, and there are no surprises, no twists, no unexpected upsets in the plot. It is a tale told by a Hollywood script-writer, full of cliches and stereotypes, signifying nothing.
Real conversion stories are dramas scripted by God. They're better than Euripedes and Shakespeare. They're weirder than Pinter. They're peppered with strange and bizarre characters. They involve absurd twists like "Saul of Tarsis, on his way to persecute the Christians, sees a vision of Jesus and falls down blind on the road to Damascus."
Only when a tale has this sort of reality does it have any chance of edifying. Because people can tell a forgery when they see one. They can recognize the air-brushing on our autobiographical testimonials. And that never fails to disedify.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Why Beauty?

Some kind person gave a favourable review of my work on her blog -- this is the first time that I've been able to get an impression from someone who doesn't know me, and I was heartened to find that the thing that came across above everything else was the devotion to beauty.
Perhaps I am a little myopic on this point (Keat's "Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty," is the sole philosophic statement that has survived in my psyche throughout all of the various shifts and turns of belief over the years), but I think that this is something that goes beyond me.
The age of Reason is over. By that I don't mean that reason is no longer valid, or that it is no longer able to elucidate new truths. I mean that people, on the whole, are no longer able or willing to receive the truth garbed in the robes of reason. She was twisted and mutilated by modernism; "rational self-interest" has led to deeply exploitative and inhuman forms of commerce; "rational" scientific and technological progress has ushered in a Culture of Death; "rational" men may argue rationally that abortion is good and infanticide justifiable. I suspect that it will be some time before Reason has recovered sufficiently that people will be able to rely on her. For the moment, then, truth, if it is going to be communicated beyond the insular circle of people who still believe in St. Thomas Aquinas, must be framed in different terms. The image, not the argument, will win the day.
This, I think, is the meaning behind Dostoyevski's statement that "Beauty will save the world." It is the meaning behind Solzhenitsyn's Nobel Prize address and it is the current of hope that runs through John Paul II's Letter to Artists.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

The Crutch of Mutual Fantasy

I just finished reading my own book. I never did do the final read-through for errors before it went to print -- that task got farmed out to my husband because I was deep in the throes of pre-publication anxiety and had started to become worried that exposure to my own work would cause me to start gnawing limbs off in the hope that it would forestall the embarrassment of having my imperfect prose revealed to the world.
Such are a writer's anxieties. I was glad to discover that the book reads fairly well, but I found that I hit the end of it without having a clear picture of the lesbian relationship that is supposed to be at the centre of the story. There are two reasons for this: the first is that I can speak as openly as I like about the things that are mine -- my sins, my thoughts, my experiences -- however there is a certain cloak of privacy behind which my ex-girlfriend has to be allowed to hide. It isn't my place to reveal her (which is why her name is changed, in the text, to Michelle). The second reason is that there is a lack of anything to say. The relationship started out with a great deal of real content. We shared the same loves, finished each others sentences, did everything together. By the end, there was nothing except for the crutch of a mutually shared fantasy life. The friendship could literally not survive beyond the end of the sexual relationship, because it had already died, suffocated beneath one make-believe relationship after another. We had stopped interacting, really, with one another long before the end came, it just wasn't apparent.
This is why I am terribly opposed to all of those "how to fix your sex-life" articles that advise married couples to indulge in a little mutual fantasy in order to spice things up. When the person that you are making love in your mind to is not the same person who is actually before you, the real relationship dies. The spice is there, sure, but beneath it the meat of the relationship rots away and eventually decays into dust. Eventually there is nothing at all, nothing to say to one another, and nothing to say about one another, because the person who you allegedly love is no longer someone that you know.