The elusive freedom of Chris Cornell

Chris Cornell performing at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 2005. By Simon Jacquier from Vernayaz (near Martigny, Valais), Switzerland.

“If this doesn’t make you free, it doesn’t mean you’re tied,” sang Chris Cornell on the title track from Superunknown, Soundgarden’s 1994 breakthrough album. I have been listening to Soundgarden pretty constantly in the wake of Cornell’s apparent suicide two weeks ago. Superunknown is lyrically stream-of-consciousness, like James Joyce and Jackson Pollock had a musical baby. Yet listening to it again now, after many years of having it up on the shelf, it is clear to me that there is an emergent theme. These are songs about freedom. Or, to be more precise, these are songs about a longing for freedom that seems impossible to fulfill.

After a suicide, it is easy to read into everything someone ever did as a sign. This is particularly tempting with Superunknown, given the dark melancholy in much of the lyrics. The album ends with the song Like Suicide which is hard not to hear now as chillingly prescient. But this was an album that came out more than twenty years ago. It was neither Soundgarden’s first nor last record, and I would argue that it was not even their best. I did not know Cornell and I cannot even begin to understand what was going on inside of him on the night that he died. I certainly do not think I will discover the answer by reading the tea leaves of his discography.

Nevertheless, listening again to Superunknown has been its own reward. It hangs together as a whole surprisingly well, despite being a collection of disparate songs. It is reminiscent in some ways of the Beatles’ White Album. Like much of Soundgarden’s work, the songs on Superunknown have the intense energy and guitar work of hard rock and metal but with a deeply pleasing melodic core. Soundgarden spent the eighties pioneering the Seattle based sound that would later be referred to as grunge, and Superunknown displays that genre at its best.

“Let it go,” Cornell sings over and over again on the album’s opening song, Drown Me. “Won’t you let it drown me in you.” Over and over again, the album expresses this same elusive desire, to be released, unchained, allowed simply to be. My Wave, for instance, is about people feeling whatever they need to feel and doing whatever they have to do in order to get through the day, so long as they do not hold anyone else back in the process. It is a vision of libertarian individualism that is worthy of the postmodern world we live in.

Yet even as Cornell cries out for freedom, he is deeply vulnerable and realistic about the costs. In The Day I Tried to Live, he follows the advice of the voice in his head that tells him to “seize the day, pull the trigger, and watch the rolling blades,” but it does not give him the sense of strength or happiness he expects. “Words you say never seem to live up to the ones inside your head,” he sings. “The lives we make never seem to get us anywhere but dead.”

The tension that so much of Cornell’s music describes is not a new one. It is the human experience ever since the fall. We sense that we are not free, that there is an unseen force in this world that holds us captive. We rebel against it, hoping to shatter the chains and find the peace in our own skin that we have never been able to find. But then we discover that the real enemy oppressing us is not outside of us at all. It is our own brokenness, driving us both to long for deep union with others and simultaneously to push others away. Our own suffering hearts enslave us in patterns of self absorption and abuse that we cannot escape, no matter how many external threats to our freedom we eliminate.

The answer to this is found in Christ, but not in a glib way. I do not for a second think that Cornell’s life would have been all flowers and rainbows if he had followed Jesus (and if I did think that, I would be as guilty of self-deception and self-righteousness as the Christian interlocutor that Cornell describes in the song Jesus Christ Pose). For all I know, Cornell may have been a Christian. In most interviews, he said that he was a “spiritual free thinker” and refused to be pinned down, but he did become a member of the Greek Orthodox Church when he married his wife in 2004.

There are moments of deep spiritual insight in many of the songs that Cornell wrote over the years. The hound of heaven was certainly on his heels, and it seems that at least on some level he knew that. Cornell told Mark Maron in 2014 that he had no idea what Soundgarden’s major hit Black Hole Sun is really about, but it is hard for me to believe that all the snakes and masks that show up in that song, only to be thwarted by the coming of the dawn, are there at random. “Heaven send hell away / no one sings like you anymore.”

The freedom that so many of us long for, not only from external threats to our liberty but from the interior tyranny of our own hearts, is a freedom that can only be found in the cross. What Jesus offers the world is a hard sell. It is not freedom from suffering. It is, rather, freedom in and through suffering, or more precisely it is freedom that gives suffering a meaning and a purpose. What Jesus takes into His own body on the cross is not merely our rule-breaking but the very substance of our broken hearts. In a godless world, suffering would be meaningless and random, but in a world in which God has become man and died and risen, our own suffering becomes the means by which we enter into the mystery of God’s grace. As we allow our suffering to be united with Christ’s on the cross, it is transformed. No longer does it define us or contain us. Thanks to the miracle of Easter, even death itself becomes a doorway to the infinite rather than a looming curse.

Suicide is a very serious sin in as much as it is a rejection of God’s love, but more often than not it is motivated not by a conscious choice but by issues of mental health, addiction, depression, or any of a host of other factors beyond our control. I wish that Chris Cornell had not killed himself, both because I lament the loss of his musical genius and because I am sad for the loss to his family. Suicide is never the answer. It does not stop the pain. But I pray that God will be merciful to him and to those who love and miss him.

I am thankful for Superunknown and for all the other beautifully sad works of art that Chris Cornell put out into the world. Despite the temptation to hear everything he did now through the lens of his suicide, I still feel a giddy roar of life in these songs. The words are cryptic and often conflicted, but the music shimmers with the energy of new life and creative hope. And that is Easter too, that a suffering song can make you want to get up and dance, that an introspective and confessional lament can be turned outward and become the very stuff of love.

Sex is great

Everyone is interested in sex. That, to me, seems reasonable. Sex is interesting. But is it great?

I do not mean by that the now common usage of the word great – something that we really like – but the older sense of the word great: something that is larger than life, something that far surpasses the ordinary, something that is truly amazing and breathtaking, worth treating with a certain reverence and awe.

Throughout most of human history, this is how sex was understood, around the world, in various cultures and religions. Ancient pagans invented fertility cults that included ritualized sexual acts. Their approach was not what we might call virtuous today, but it was nevertheless predicated on an understanding that sex is powerful and that it somehow connects us with the divine.

The Bible elevates sex as well by elevating the whole institution of marriage. We see in the Scriptures not only a regulating of sex within marriage but an understanding that in the sexual act is an image of the relationship between God and humanity. The metaphor most often used in Scripture to describe God’s relationship with us is that of marriage. An entire book of the Bible—the Song of Solomon—is an exploration both of sexual love between a husband and a wife as well as the relationship between God and His covenant people. Ephesians 5 speaks plainly of the “mystery” of how Jesus relates to the Church as His “bride.” And of course, there’s this from the book of Revelation:

Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his Bride has made herself ready; it was granted her to clothe herself with fine linen, bright and pure”— for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints. And the angel said to me, “Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.” And he said to me, “These are the true words of God.” (Revelation 19:7-9)

The culmination of the whole of human history will be the union of Christ and His Church in marriage. This is not a sexless claim. Sex itself is the seal of the covenant. This is why, repeatedly in the Old Testament, the image of sexual infidelity is used as a metaphor for the infidelity of the people to God. Sex is seen as the ultimate act of joining. “Do you not know that he who is joined to a prostitute becomes one body with her?” says Paul, “for, as it is written, ‘the two will become one flesh’” (1 Corinthians 6:16, quoting Genesis 2).

There are certainly examples of Christian leaders and teachers throughout history who have said unfortunate things about sex and the body, but they are outweighed by both the Biblical witness and the far clearer tradition of depicting sex as something sacred and worth preserving as such. One of my favorite icons is that of St. Anna and St. Joachim, the parents of the Blessed Virgin Mary. While Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit, Our Lady was conceived in the usual way, through the marriage bed of her parents. The icon–shown above–depicts the two saints embracing in front of a bed. Herein we find the fulfillment of the doctrine of the immaculate conception, that no original sin was passed on to Mary in her conception, no hint of sin tied to the sexual union between her parents. What could be more of an endorsement of the greatness of sex than that?

Yet today, as our culture increases its march into a belligerent secularity, sex is not seen as great. It is still interesting to people, to be sure, as any beer commercial proves. Our culture is obsessed with sex and with the strange and ill defined concept of “sexual freedom.” But sex is not great anymore. It does not inspire awe, let alone reverence. It is ordinary, recreational, blasé. We treat it as if it is as casual as a handshake, something we should engage in “safely,” by which we mean through contraception, protecting ourselves from one of the main purposes of sex while keeping at arm’s length its power to unite us as one with each other and with God.

That this is so can be seen most clearly in the western cultural assumption that sex is a precursor to marriage. For thousands of years, across cultures, sex was understood to be the seal of marriage, the great beacon at its center that made marriage different from every other relationship. Of course, there has always been sex outside of marriage, viewed with varying degrees of stigma and shame, but the sex of the marriage bed was the apex of the marital relationship, the place where it went from simply human to divine.

Now, however, there is such a strong expectation that sex will happen before marriage that the very notion of “waiting” is ridiculed as a retrograde barbarism, when it is even addressed at all. The average sitcom today during prime television viewing hours has unmarried characters engaging in casual sex without even a nod towards some kind of discernment on their part over whether or not this is a good idea. That would not have been true even as recently as thirty years ago.

Marriage itself is still treated with a certain degree of awe, but it is at another level than sex. It is not uncommon for someone considering marriage to say, “The sex is great, but I don’t know if I’m ready for that level of commitment.” The very words of the second clause disprove the first, at least on a grammatical level. Sex that does not have a commitment of the binding together of two as one flesh is not great at all, even if it is pleasurable to the senses. In the modern west, sex is impotent.

The secular orthodoxy that says that sex must be fun and free of constraint is a major part of what keeps people today out of the Church. When people come to investigate the Christian faith, questions about sex are usually at the top of their list. The wise priest or pastor knows though that such questions cannot be quickly answered. The answers that the Christian tradition offers are not going to make sense to most people who have been brought up to think of sex more as a marker of identity and personal choice than as a sign of the love and faithfulness of God.

We have to learn what it means to be human beings again. Only then will we be able really to understand why sex is great. Like so much else of value that is being tossed into the fire in our age, the greatness of sex must be protected and preserved in the Church if nowhere else. We must become the custodians of the holiness of sex until the day finally comes when the world, exhausted by its ever-fruitless search for greater sexual freedom and expression, will once again wonder just what it was that made us think sex was so darned interesting in the first place.

Timing is everything

Clock in Zimmer Tower in Lier, Belgium showing time calculated in several ways, including cycles of the moon, seasons, zodiac, and tides. From Wikimedia Commons user Kneiphof.

About a year and a half ago, the Archbishop of Canterbury announced that he was in talks with the pope and leaders in the Orthodox Churches on regularizing the date of Easter. It was an enormous claim that would have indicated a tremendous breakthrough in ecumenical relations. Since that time, not much has happened or been said. At the time, though, I remember thinking that a fixed regular date, like the first Sunday in April for instance, would be a practical good and would end a lot of confusion. I was wrong. There is so much more at stake.

It is hard to figure out the date of Easter. It should not be, but it is. The dating takes into consideration ancient controversies going all the way back to Nicaea that few people remember anymore. It requires an understanding of moon cycles and the ancient Jewish calendar and something called the “golden number” which I am certain is associated in some way with Harry Potter and the game of Quidditch. If not for the chart in the back of the Book of Common Prayer showing the dates of Easter over the next few decades, I would be lost to figure it out. And, of course, the Orthodox figure it out in a different way than Christians in the west, meaning that most years we are celebrating on totally different schedules from one another.

Believe it or not, though, behind all that complication lies a simple and beautiful principle: Jesus Christ is the savior not only of humanity but of all creation. The whole of the cosmos finds its consummation in the Resurrection of Our Lord.

The entire framework of the Christian year is laid out to emphasize this, even the fixed days. It is no coincidence, for instance, that the Feast of the Annunciation, which marks the conception of Jesus, is on March 25, a date very close to the spring equinox. It occurs exactly nine months before we celebrate the Lord’s birth on Christmas, December 25, a date very close to the winter solstice. The rhythms of nature were taken into account by our ancient forbears when they put together the liturgical calendar. All the pieces are carefully put together so that they reveal Our Lord as the author of creation.

Easter is always on the first Sunday following the first full moon following the spring equinox. That may seem like an arbitrary arrangement, but it is not. It has to do in part with when Passover is celebrated since Jesus rose after Passover, but the connection between the moon cycle and the equinox is also vital because of its relation to light. On the equinox, day and night are of equal length. The moon affects not only the amount of reflected light that we see in the night but also the gravitational realities that affect the tides and therefore all the natural rhythms of life on this planet. Having Easter when we have it means that we are locating Our Lord’s triumph at the moment of greatest struggle between darkness and light, at the height of the transforming of the world from winter into spring, from death into new life.

But lunar cycles can be calculated in more than one way, hence the difference between eastern and western dating for Easter. The details of that difference are relatively unimportant. There is a scandal in it, as there is in all Christian division, in that it presents the world with a divided witness. If a great ecumenical consensus were to form between western and eastern Christians on just which method to use to calculate the date of Easter, that would be a great benefit and I would applaud it. But I sincerely hope no decision is ever made that simply makes the date arbitrary. What we would lose would outweigh what we would gain.

Holy Week can be a slog, especially for clergy who spend many hours planning and executing complicated liturgies that seem to attract fewer and fewer of the faithful each year. There is tremendous pressure to do it well, particularly the Easter sermon which may be the best evangelistic opportunity of the year. In the midst of this, I sometimes fool myself into thinking that I am in charge of making our worship beautiful and speaking just the right words at the right moment that will break through the ice around the unbelieving heart. It is not so. The liturgy is already beautiful because Jesus is at its center. On Saturday night, at the culmination of the Great Vigil of Easter, I will stand at the altar as bread and wine that come from creation, grown through the cycles of light and darkness, tide and moon, become the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. The creator will become the creation as death is transformed into life, not just for us but for the whole created order. All of heaven and earth will sing in harmony with the one who sang it all into being in the first place. And it will all happen right as it should, right on time.

Jesus Christ is not merely the God of some small, self-referential sect called “Christians.” He is the one, true, living God in whom and through whom all things were made and have their being. On Easter, even light itself bows down to worship Him.

God in the noise

Photo of Ukranian orchestra, circa 1920. From Wikimedia Commons.

I am not the first and I will not be the last to observe just how noisy the world has become. There is very little silence in contemporary life and the spiritual effects of this are deleterious.

I have been reading Alexander Schmemann’s Great Lent this year. This book came out in 1969, yet the problem of noise was already apparent to Schmemann. He writes:

Everyone will no doubt agree that the whole style of family existence has been radically altered by radio and television. These media of “mass communication” permeate today our whole life. One does not have to “go out” in order to “be out.” The whole world is permanently here within my reach. And, little by little, the elementary experience of living in an inner world, of the beauty of that “interiority,” simply disappears from our modern culture… If the Christian of the past lived in great measure in a silent world, giving him ample opportunity for concentration and inner life, today’s Christian has to make a special effort to recover that essential dimension of silence which alone can put us in contact with higher realities.

The fact that Schmemann wrote this before the advent of the VCR, let alone the rise of social media, is instructive. In our own day, this deceptive sense that we are interacting with the world when we have not even left our couches has amplified to a proportion that Schmemann could never have imagined. Walk into a room filled with family and friends today and you will see four or five people staring at their phones, each in a separate virtual world, entirely disconnected from what or who is immediately around them. We imagine that “liking” someone’s post on Facebook is the same thing as maintaining a real relationship with them. In such a world, where everything we experience is constructed, curated, and constantly on, there is little space for an authentic encounter with the living God.

Schmemann’s solution is “that the use of TV and radio be drastically reduced during Lent.” It is likely that Schmemann would have approved of the practice of fasting from social media that many modern Christians adopt as a Lenten observance. Undoubtedly, there is some spiritual good to this. Reducing our dependance on anything is good if it is accompanied by prayer and greater devotion to God. I know that my own life of prayer improves when I reduce my interaction with the virtual world. The Lord speaks to us all the time, but we only hear Him if we are listening. The biblical analog would perhaps be 1 Kings 19 when Elijah encounters the Lord not in fire or earthquake but in a “still small voice” speaking out of the silence.

All of that said, I wonder if there is something overly romantic about Schmemann’s vision of a tranquil past in which Christians spent their silences contemplating the presence of God. Perhaps in monasteries it was so, but the average Christian still had to contend with quite a bit of noise. As any parent of young children will attest, there is a constant noise that accompanies the endless busyness of parenting. So too, the mindless work of maintaining a home or working for our daily bread is rarely if ever silent. Life has always been noisy.

What these electronic media offer us that our ancestors did not have is a way of distracting ourselves from the noise of the rest of life with a different kind of noise. For those of us who tend to be a bit introverted and therefore easily overwhelmed by the world, having our own personal electronic culture that we can dip into at the touch of a button is a way of restoring ourselves. For the mother or father who just needs a moment’s vacation from unending parental responsibility, scrolling mindlessly for a few moments through a Facebook feed can be a real relief.

When I was in seminary, the SSJE brothers would regularly visit with us. During Mass one time, one of the brothers preached — I no longer remember which one — and he observed that even in the monastery, it was often easy to lose track of God amidst the busyness of the daily routine. He likened the Christian life to learning to hear a single instrument even when a whole orchestra is playing. “If you listen carefully,” he said, “you can learn to pick out the oboe. And if you learn to know God’s voice, you can also hear Him, even in the middle of a flurry of activity.”

This, it seems to me, is the great challenge for Christians today. God speaks at the same patient, constant level He always has—entreating us, inviting us, calling us into His presence. If we have the opportunity to shut out all the noise and just listen to Him, we should take it. But many of us do not have that opportunity. Yet still, if we attune our ears properly, we can hear Him just as clearly. Accompanying our busyness and noise with prayer, fasting, the reading of Scripture, and the Sacraments orients us towards God. These things give us a feel for Him so that we know His voice anywhere, even when it seems faint.

So perhaps the biblical analog we need is not so much 1 Kings 19 as it is 1 Samuel 3. God calls to Samuel but Samuel does not realize that is what he is hearing. It is only after Eli coaches him and tells him what to say that Samuel is really able to listen to the voice of the Lord. God calls each of us, but most of us are frightfully bad at hearing Him. Even if we had silence, as Samuel did, it is not altogether certain we would notice God’s voice in the midst of it. We need more than silence. We need Elis in our lives to help us. We need to be taught what God sounds like so that we can tune in to hear Him, whether we are in a place of silence or a place of great noise. Even in silence, there is a noise in the rattling of thoughts through our brains that can be deafening. We need to learn the difference between God’s calling and the churning of our own minds.

What we need is not total silence, as ideal and desirable as that may be. What we need is to learn how to listen.

Evangelizing for beauty

Stained glass window at the Philadelphia Episcopal Cathedral. Photo by the author. All rights reserved.

“Evangelize through beauty!” is the clarion call of many Catholic Christians these days. It’s a phrase used quite a bit by folks like Bishop Robert Barron or the bloggers at New Liturgical Movement. And whether or not the exact phrase is used, it is a sentiment that comes up often in Orthodox and Anglican and even some Lutheran circles as well, especially among the younger, more traditional clergy. The point being that the more beautiful we allow our worship to be, the more people will be attracted to it.

Beauty comes from God. When we see something beautiful, we find ourselves in contact with some aspect of God’s own beauty. Yet the fact is, for as many people as I have seen converted to Christ or deepened in their faith by the beauty of traditional worship, I have seen just as many if not more who have been turned off by it. They see the historic liturgy as cold, overly formal, boring, or wasteful.

Much of this is due to a general lack of understanding of what beauty is. Thomas Aquinas said that beauty is “that which when perceived pleases.” For the modern west, this has morphed into “beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” a phrase which most people think means that beauty is entirely subjective. To call something beautiful is to state nothing more than a personal preference for it. If I think something is beautiful and you disagree, there is no right or wrong answer.

Yet what Thomas meant was not that whatever happens to please us is beautiful, but that when we perceive something—when we truly experience it through the senses in a way that we can contemplate it—we find it satisfying if it is beautiful. And the reason we find it satisfying is because it fulfills a deeper longing we have to come into contact with true being.

When is a dog beautiful? When it is the most perfect specimen of dogness that it can be. It fully and completely exudes the quality of dogness to the degree that when we look upon it, we see with absolute clarity the truth about what it is to be a dog. Substitute in whatever you like there for dog – a beautiful piece of music, a beautiful building, even a beautiful woman – they all shine through with the clarity of their own being, communicating in the simplest and fullest way their own nature. We are naturally attracted to this beauty because we are made for union with the true source of all being, He who is Being Itself. To the extent that dogness was created by God, a fully realized dog will reflect in its own being some small piece of the fullness of being that is God. Therefore, whenever we encounter anything that is truly beautiful, we encounter God.

For many modern western people though, the categories of being have become all mixed up. Postmodernism has so thoroughly eviscerated our ability to recognize objective truths that we fear and misunderstand beauty. We believe that we are the makers of our own destiny. We determine our own meaning through the twin demons of consumption and choice. We choose what we want and then we consume it. That is how we know who we are. That is the meaning of the now fraught word “identity.” We create our identities by amassing an ongoing list of personal preferences. If you are not sure who you are, just look back over your receipts for the last few months to see what you’ve chosen to consume, or better yet cycle through your Facebook “likes.”

Postmodernism has both encouraged us to make our own truth and made us skeptical of all truth claims. If somebody says something is true with absolute confidence, we scoff and reply, “Well, that’s just your opinion.” Objective beauty then is an affront to our senses because it forces us to grapple with something other than our preferences. Postmodernism tells us that dogness is not a thing. A dog can also be a cat if it wants to be. Objective beauty forces us to see that this is not so – a dog that looks and acts like a cat is ugly, even if we happen to like it.

When it comes to worship, there is a clear mandate given in Psalm 29 and repeated in the Book of Common Prayer: “Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness.” Samuel Johnson made just this point in a sermon he gave at King’s College in 1761.“It is a common Mistake which hath too much prevailed in these Times,” he said, “and in this Country, and that even among some well-meaning People, that they seem to account the Hearing of sermons, to be the principal and most important and edifying Part of the public Worship of GOD.” In our own time, we might substitute for preaching any number of other shibboleths – “spirit filled” music (Read: Rock or Gospel band), a progressive or conservative political agenda, programs for kids, entertainment, social justice, etc. Johnson says that what we really need is already present in the historic liturgy. We need worship that is beautiful. And he claims that the liturgy of the prayer book is beautiful, not because he happens to like it, but because “Beauty consists in the Fitness, Proportion, Variety and Uniformity of Things with regard to the End designed in them” and the liturgy of the prayer book meets each of these criteria. A similar case could be made for most other historic rites of the Church.

I do not believe this means that every Mass must be set to Palestrina. It is possible to sing in the traditional tones of west Africa or the style of African American spirituals or even—God forbid—to sing hymns with a guitar and have it be beautiful. But we have to see beauty as more than a nice garnish on our worship. Beauty is an end unto itself. If our worship is not beautiful, we are failing at properly worshipping God.

As we plan for worship, evaluating not only the steps of our liturgies but also the vestments and music and images and even the design of the building itself, we need to ask some questions. Is this beautiful? Does it clearly reflect the truth and beauty and goodness of God? Does it make that beauty known to all the senses? Does it do so in a way that would be obvious not only in our own time and culture but universally? Given this set of criteria, we are best equipped to have beauty in our worship if we start with those things that we know are beautiful because they have been passed down through the generations, rather than starting from scratch and hoping for the best.

All of this is good and necessary, but will it fill the pews on a Sunday? I have to admit, I am skeptical. Certainly, there will be people who will be drawn to the faith simply because it is beautiful, but there will be many others for whom the very fact that our worship is beautiful will be a repellant. They will want to customize the liturgy and rearrange it to their liking. When they cannot, they will threaten to go to the church up the street where the pastor is much more open to “creativity.”

Evangelizing through beauty is good, but I think we need to evangelize for beauty as much as we do anything else. We need to gently but firmly begin to teach people what beauty is and why it matters. That will require a far broader witness to the world than just making our worship beautiful along classical lines. It will mean stepping out into the world, into the public square, and boldly pointing to the beautiful, inviting our friends and neighbors to open their eyes to it, insisting that we acknowledge the beautiful even if it shatters our carefully constructed identities to see it.

Sickness and nakedness

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I am terrible at being sick. I realize that is not unique. Who likes being sick? But I mean that I am terrible at it as a Christian. It is one of my great failings in discipleship.

Over the last few weeks, my whole household has been going through what has become an annual visitation of the plague. At least three separate illnesses have overtaken us, one right after another, so that there’s been little to no break. Nothing life threatening, of course. An upper respiratory thing, a stomach bug, and a case of the Flu (and yes, before you ask, we were all vaccinated – it didn’t help).

It has been terrible, but far less than a life threatening crisis. Yet I find that I have been less and less faithful throughout the days of illness and recovery. In the beginning, I said little prayers, asking for God to relieve the sickness, but as it has dragged on, those prayers have faded, along with my reading of the Daily Office and my now defunct new year’s promise to pray the rosary daily. As I have felt worse, I have become more irritable with family and friends. I have also become more singularly focused on myself, constantly aware of my own “feeling bad,” and obsessed with finding comfort and distraction. I have ignored theology and Scripture, preferring instead to watch countless amounts of junk television.

In short, I have become a spiritual bum.

This is not how a Christian is supposed to face sickness.

In the Visitation of the Sick from the Book of Common Prayer, the priest at one point invokes the Lord while addressing the sick person, asking Him to “make thee know and feel, that there is none other Name under heaven given to man, in whom, and through whom, thou mayest receive health and salvation, but only the Name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” In the same rite, the priest calls upon the Lord to “sanctify… the sickness of this thy servant; that the sense of his weakness may add strength to his faith, and seriousness to his repentance…” Sickness is not any fun, but it holds within it a great opportunity for a Christian. In the weakness of our sickness, we may come to realize our dependence on God alone. Our sickness may become a tool that God uses to make us holy, cutting away all that holds us back from faith and strengthening our sense that true health is only to be found in Christ.

I have said these prayers many times by the bedside of sick people. I have counseled people going through tremendous physical strain to rely on Jesus to make it through. Yet, when I encounter even the slightest discomfort in my own life, I run in the opposite direction.

Sickness is a clarifying agent. It is the sort of thing that holds a mirror up to us and shows us who we really are. It is easy to be pious when all is well. When our bodies are not working properly, the true condition of our souls becomes apparent. I have seen people walk through terrible illness with true grace and dignity. I have also seen people fall apart, allowing their fears and insecurities to rise to the surface. In myself, I have seen far more of the latter than the former.

Sickness exposes us. It unmasks the lie we live under that says that we are capable of caring for ourselves, by our own steam, with no need for anyone or anything else. Sickness is a kind of nakedness. I hide from God when I am sick for the same reason that Adam and Eve hid from God when they found themselves naked in the garden. The only way that we can maintain the illusion that we are good enough without God is if we never see ourselves accurately. When our wounded reality is revealed, we try to hide in the shadows, not wanting to admit the truth.

As this latest round of sickness slowly starts to dissipate, I find that what I need more than ever is to form a new set of prayer habits. I do not mean by this that I need more devotions to say. I have many of those already and I was quick to discard them when I needed them most. Rather, what I need is the habit of being exposed in prayer for the fraud that I am. I need a regular, constant reminder before God that I am wounded, selfish, and totally incapable of my own healing. I need the shock of that to set me free from complacency and to focus all the attention of my soul away from my own comfort and towards the heart of God.

When sickness comes again, as it always does, I want to be prepared to receive the only medicine that will actually do me any long term good.

Photo taken from the window at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Philadelphia, PA. All rights reserved.

How Christians talk about sexual difference

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If you had to buy clothes for a little boy under the age of seven a century ago, a pretty pink dress would have been a socially acceptable option. According to an article in the June, 1918 issue of Earnshaw’s Infant’s Department, “The generally accepted rule is pink for the boys, and blue for the girls. The reason is that pink, being a more decided and stronger color, is more suitable for the boy, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl.” By the end of World War I, the trend of putting dresses on young children of both sexes had waned, but it was not until the 1940s that blue became associated with boys and pink with girls.

There is quite a lot about the way we understand what it means to be a man or a woman that is generated by cultural trends, even when it comes to things we feel very strongly. The result of this has been, at times, the unfair punishment of one sex or the other for non-conformity, experienced most strongly by women.

As our culture has awakened to this reality, it has in some ways over-corrected. Since the 1960s, some feminists have argued that there are no real and essential differences between men and women, other than a bit of plumbing. It is not hard to draw the line between that reasoning and today’s acceptance of the idea of gender as a social construct, the breakdown of the family, the absence of fathers, etc. But none of that eclipses the fact that there are aspects of our lived experience as men and women, some of which are very dear to us and feel completely inherent, that are nevertheless social constructs. Blue may feel more masculine to us and pink may feel more feminine, but a century ago we would have felt exactly the opposite was true.

This all ran through my head as I read Alastair J. Roberts’ recent piece for The Gospel Coalition, “How Should We Think About Watching Women Fight?” (originally titled “Why Christians Should Refuse to Celebrate Women Fighting”). Roberts argues strongly that Christians ought to be opposed to women fighting in mixed martial arts because it “cuts against the grain of the ends for which they were created.” Along the way, Roberts makes good points about the sexualization of women fighters and the way in which such sexualized violence feeds into the pornographic mindset of the mostly male viewership of the UFC. Yet his ultimate point seems to be that women should not fight because that just is not something that women do. He relies for this assessment on the generally greater upper body strength of men and a vaguely described notion of men having a “greater propensity toward, aptitude for, and interest in both violence and agonism [=struggle].”

In addition to women who fight in the UFC, Roberts is also critical of the trope of the “strong female character” – the waifish woman in television and films who kicks the butts of men twice her size (think River from Firefly or Black Widow in the recent Avengers films). “Such women exemplify the virtues of much contemporary feminism and gender theory,” he says, “which commonly seek to deny the reality of sexual difference, overturn all gender norms, and disproportionately celebrate women who achieve in traditionally male activities or contexts.”

Roberts is right that there is a problem in contemporary western culture that has emerged from the loss of an essentialist view of sexual difference. He is also right that women are largely on the losing end of that stick. For all of the claims that women fighting in the UFC or scantily clad women fighting in popular fiction empowers women, the sad truth is that such things give cover to the idea that the only way women can have value in our society is if they do what men do, or make themselves sexually available to men, or both. As Roberts puts it, this is an “idealization of women who most conform to male norms of behavior, interests, and aptitudes, an idealization that can make unlikely allies of contemporary feminists and male fantasists.”

Unfortunately, Roberts seems content to name “male behavior” and “female behavior” as the correctives for this problem, as if such things are easily and universally identifiable. It may be true that men tend to be more aggressive than women – I have no immediate data to back that up, but it sounds anecdotally true – but if it is true, what does that mean? Are men supposed to be aggressive? Are women not? Why? Who says? If we find a woman who is able to kick a man’s butt, does that disprove the theory?

These questions are compounded in Roberts’ article by his lack of reference to Christian sources of authority. Roberts only quotes Scripture once, making a passing allusion in his final paragraph to Genesis 2 which he does not flesh out. He quotes from no fathers, no theologians, and no councils. In short, he is attempting to make a Christian argument that does not actually have any Christianity in it.

Compare and contrast this approach with the document Inter Insignores, a 1976 declaration of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith which was endorsed by Pope Paul VI and heavily cited by Pope St. John Paul II in his 1994  apostolic letter, Ordinato Sacerdotalis. Inter Insignores deals with the question of whether or not women can be ordained priests, not whether or not they should be knocking each other’s brains out in the UFC, but the fundamental question behind the question is the same: What can the Church say definitively about the essential differences between men and women?

Both Inter Signores and Ordinato Sacerdotalis are careful to be economic in their pronouncements. They say that the primary reason why the Church cannot ordain women is because Christ simply did not leave His Church authority to do so. Nonetheless, Inter Signores expounds deeply upon the theology of the priest as someone who stands in the place of Christ. This is a sacramental reality that requires a physical sign in the priest’s own body:

The incarnation of the Word took place according to the male sex: this is indeed a question of fact, and this fact, while not implying any alleged natural superiority of man over woman, cannot be disassociated from the economy of salvation: it is indeed in harmony with the entirety of God’s plan as God himself has revealed it, and of which the mystery of the Covenant is the nucleus.

The CDF goes on to cite a vast array of Scripture passages—Galatians 4, Ephesians 5, Revelation 19, and especially Matthew 22:1-14, among others—to make the case that salvation is wrapped up in the “nuptial mystery” of the joining of Christ (male) with His Church (female). “It is through this Sciptural language, all interwoven with symbols, and which expresses and affects man and woman in their profound identity, that there is revealed to us the mystery of God and Christ, a mystery which of itself is unfathomable.” The document does not try to pull apart the mystery and examine each individual component, but instead accepts it as a whole, a tapestry of interconnected realities of maleness and femaleness, including essential differences that go beyond mere plumbing but that are nevertheless hard to pin down in a scientific way.

Whether one accepts the central argument of Inter Signores or not, it is clear that there are ways for traditional Christians to talk about gender essentialism that do not require us to hitch our wagons to unprovable, anecdotal evidence. When we start with Scripture and the historic teaching of the Church—instead of with novel American cultural norms and intuition—we come to a much clearer and less cluttered critique of our culture’s approach to sexual difference.

Women and men are different on many different levels, none of which invalidates our equal dignity before God. Given how our culture has historically curtailed the freedoms and diminished the contributions of women, we do well as Christians to examine carefully our basic understandings of gender and to distinguish as best as possible between that which is truly inherent and that which is merely culturally received. Yet even as we do so, we must remember the finely woven tapestry. It is not easy to pull one thread out without seeing the others fly loose. That is the tragedy we now live in, wherein a real and true and good critique of sexism has resulted in a total breakdown in our society’s ability to value the objective differences between women and men.