January 11, 2015

Aelred and Us: Ten Years On

Beginnings, Ends, and Friends

a sermon preached at the Church of the Ascension, Manhattan, on the Feast of St Aelred 2004

Paul wrote to the Philippians, “Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.” And Jesus told his disciples, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”
In all the struggles with which the church has struggled during the last few decades, nothing has stirred the pot so much, raising it from a simmer to a boil, as the vexed matter of human sexuality. The problem with our vexation is that we have focused so much on the aspect of humanity which is not uniquely human — sex — and largely ignored the aspect of human nature that is (as far as we know) unique to human life: the capacity for self-giving and self-sacrificing love. This vexation and ignorance are no help in keeping our kettle from boiling over and making a mess of our ecclesiastical stove-top.

For conservatives in particular sex is almost always “the problem” — for at the same time they want to talk about what is “natural” they also want to preserve a strong distinction between humanity and the rest of nature. Thus, as archconservative Archbishop Akinola of Nigeria said concerning homosexuality just a few months ago, “Even animals don’t do such things.” Obviously the arrogant Archbishop is ignorant of the well-documented same-sex behavior among scores of animal species. But then, he and those who take his point of view aren’t interested in nature and whatever truth it might reveal to us; for they are quite content, upon being shown that animals do engage in such behavior, to turn around and accuse gays and lesbians of being “inhuman” for acting like animals — so I suppose in their view we really are neither fish nor fowl — nor human! — and shouldn’t even exist. As the wife of one of the bishops at Lambeth put it, that would be the final solution to the whole problem — “We don’t have homosexuals in Africa,” she said, “because we kill them.”

Though they might reject such genocidal homophobia, even more moderate conservatives display a similarly perverse exaltation of natural law that takes no account of real nature. For instance, as Roman Catholic moral theologians put it, Human sex is distinguished from animal sex in that only human sex leads to the birth of human beings. This surely qualifies for the theological “Duh” award of the decade. And while those who advance this triviality as if it were a helpful insight do so to preserve the dignity of human personhood — which of course only exists in human persons — in the end they are left with a dehumanized biological determinism, in which the primary good about a married couple is their fertility. This reasoning ignores the facts that not all heterosexual sex (even in the most loving of marriages) leads to the generation of new human beings — nor do we grant marriage annulments at menopause; nor are all heterosexual relationships loving; and some of those that are least loving may be the most fertile. It is not our capacity to breed — even to breed humans — that makes us human.

When one thus eliminates fertility and the creation of new human beings from the discussion, the conservative argument shifts in an enthusiastic appeal to a surmised “complementarity.” This circular argument limits the only legitimate human “other” for appropriately human relationships solely on the basis of the so-called complementarity of the sexes. In doing so it again reduces all human beings, male and female, to the status of mere prongs and holes, as if we were nothing more than the loose ends of biological extension cords, plugs and sockets designed to pass along some kind of live current, without regard to what that current is or is for. One conservative writer waxes eloquent on the imagined “fit” of male and female, which he says is like the fit of hand and glove: of course, notice who the glove is, and who the hand; women sure must get tired of being portrayed as accessories! So this supposedly noble effort to exalt human nature also ultimately undercuts human dignity.
These arguments also betray a kind of genealogical fixation— as if what most makes us human is our birth, rather than our life, as if the beginning of human life is all that counts, and not the human life lived to its human end; as if Genesis were the end of the story rather than the beginning. And it is this story which I wish to revisit and comment upon today.

I do this, in part on the basis of an appeal to our animal past, and the claims of nature, but more on the basis of the Gospel, and its supernatural claims upon our human present for our human future.
For what the Gospel shows us is the astonishing truth that love is unnatural. I’ll say it again: love is unnatural. Put another way, love doesn’t come naturally: perhaps that sounds less threatening! Love has to be urged and commanded. You have to work at it. Left to our own devices, our animal natures, the drive for life we share with all living things, we would seek only our own self-interest, only our own wants and needs, or at best the wants and needs of our species, as if human life were only meant to produce more human lives; as if we were nothing more than organic copy machines driven by our DNA to produce more DNA-producers, in some ways no better than a particularly large and noisy virus infecting the surface of the globe.

This driving energy, what the romantics used to call the “life-force,” is not love. On the contrary, “The force that through the green fuse drives the flower,” and drives the upbuilding of the universe is love’s opposite: self-interest, self-preservation, the survival of the fittest, call it what you will; this is the force that drove the rise of the universe from quarks to dust to stars to cells to animals and finally to us; it is this property of self-cohesion and self-preservation, the redundancy that what endures endures, and (as Doris Day sang) what will be will be, and that only what can reproduce will reproduce, that drove and drives the natural world. And although this leaning towards self-interest can take evil forms — Saint Augustine once said if you needed any proof of original sin, just watch a baby for a while — the tendency to self-interest is not evil in itself, even in human beings.

God, after all, created it as the means to build up the creation. God created the natural law of self-interest that alone could lead to the complexity capable of sustaining life. God provided nature with this inclination to self-preservation, and we have inherited it as part of our nature. So it is not evil in itself: as the rabbis taught, were it not for the yetzer ha-ra, the inclination towards self-interest, no man would build a house, or take a wife, or start a business.

But, as we know, when this drive predominates we get into trouble: and we’ve been troubled by it for a long time, from the moment we became aware of it. As the old, old story goes, it was the impulse to self-preservation that both drove Adam and Eve to their primal act of self-assertion, and convicted them with the knowledge of what they had done, when they fell into the knowledge of good and evil, the naked consciousness of the needy and assertive self, and knew what they had done, and what they had lost.

But they also learned what they still had. For in their fall they became aware that God had already given them something else, the good they weren’t aware of before they chose the evil, indeed before they knew the difference. God had balanced the force that launched the world at its genesis with another more personal gift.

God had imbued human hearts with love: which is not a creature, but the image of God’s self. Love is the gift which gave us the capacity to see and feel beyond our needs, beyond the needs even of our family or clan or society, the knowledge that we are not simply creatures living off each other, but creatures living for each other; that life is not based ultimately upon need but upon gift, and that life is not about the accumulation of assets and the preservation of the self or the species, but about the compassionate generosity that sacrifices even life itself for the sake of the beloved. God made us human, when to us, out of all creation, he gave this incredible energy that goes by the name of love. It is love itself, unnatural and counterintuitive love, which at its greatest sacrifices even its own life so that the beloved might live; it is love, the gift of God and the supernatural spark of the divine likeness that glows within each human soul, that makes human life truly human and most truly alive. It is love beyond price that makes life worth living, and worth giving up.

And when the time was ripe, God showed us this love in person, perfected in Jesus, who commands us to love each other the way he loved us: which is to say, not for what he could get out of us, but for what he could give us. God’s love is not based on need — God doesn’t need anything — but is rather God’s gift, stemming from God’s own nature, God who is love. The natural law of self-interest was merely God’s creature used to build up creation. But love is God’s self: and the love of God is not about transaction, but incarnation.

And when he had taught us this, we ceased being mere servants — who do as they are told but do not know why — and became friends, who do as they are commanded not in ignorance or out of fear, but out of trust, and in the knowledge of the love of God, who gave us life at our genesis, and gave us life again in the revelation of the Son of God, the beginning and the end, who became not only our savior, but our friend, who shared our life and of his great mercy allowed us to share in his.

* * *

This is the gospel truth as Jesus spoke it, the gospel truth that Saint Aelred of Rievaulx preached and lived. He did it in the setting of the monastery, among men committed to a life of common prayer and work, and most of all of unnatural love: the deeply unnatural love that Jesus commanded, the love that gives itself up and places others first, that sees other people not as means to an end (however good or exalted that end might be) but as ends in themselves, icons of Christ and images of God, and above all, as friends.

Now, let there be no doubt that whatever the experiments of his youth, in his later years we can rest assured that Aelred took the vows of celibacy seriously, both for himself and for the monks under his charge. But he also knew that human affection is a great gift, a gift that requires expression, and allowed his monks the familiarities of friendship that sterner ascetics would have found scandalous. Aelred walked that middle way between the biological determinists who saw human beings only in terms of their capacity for breeding, and the gnostic dualists who — misunderstanding the incarnation itself — wrongly thought they could escape the realities of their own embodiment. And so he allowed the signs of friendship to flourish in his monastery. And the monastery, the school of charity, became in its time, the preserver of the world. Not because it set out to do that, not as a means to an end, but because it was full of the love of God.

* * *

Today we have a great opportunity, not just to keep our ecclesiastical kettle from boiling over, but to preserve the world anew, and to teach the mystery of charity to a world hungry for love but steeped in self-interest. Our world has forgotten Sirach’s wisdom, that true friendship is beyond price and cannot be bought or sold in the marketplace.

And I firmly believe that gays and lesbians — whether they have legalized their domestic partnerships, had their unions blessed, or gone off to Canada to get married — can be teachers in this new school of charity for the church and the world, to offer a teaching as powerful as what the monastery taught in the days of Aelred.

And I don’t just mean more Queer Eye for the Straight Church — we’ve been there and done that for centuries; writing the hymns, playing and singing the music, crafting and leading the liturgies, designing the buildings and generally making the church more attractive than it would have been without us. No, what I mean is far more serious and far more challenging. I’m talking about the practice of the presence of God, who in Jesus Christ commands us to love each other as he loved us, with the love that does not abide in relationships built on quid-pro-quo or cost and benefit.

For I believe with all my heart that same-sex couples not only can show forth the great mystery of mutual love as well as different-sex couples do (or fail to do), but may well be able to do it better, and with greater freedom. Free from the shackles of biological determinism by which human cultures have falsely and conventionally come to believe that men and women are naturally and separately suited only for particular roles and destined as means to particular ends, we can emphatically declare and show forth in our lives that human beings are not roles, nor are they means to an end: whether that end be the brief spasm of sexual release or the procreation of a family, the maintenance of a home, or of a society. For as long as marriage is seen primarily for what one gets out of it: as a contract for the interchange of property or the grant of rights, for the building of a family or a home, for the maintenance of the social status quo — rather than for what goes into it: as a covenant of the mutual gift of two persons to each other for no reason other than for love, as long as we see the union of two hearts and minds primarily for its extrinsic worth rather than for its intrinsic value, it will be branded with the hallmark of commerce, rather than blessed as the sign and sacrament of generosity.

Such true freedom and mutuality are difficult when church and society still harp on what they call “appropriate” roles for men and women, when they place their trust in a nuclear family that even at its best was not the means by which God chose to enter creation when the time came to come among us as one of us. True freedom and mutuality are difficult when people talk the talk of self-sacrifice, but walk the walk of imposing sacrifice on others — and how many women have been told it is their natural lot to suffer in silence when men take advantage of them or neglect them, all in the hopes that it will make those men more “domesticated.” True mutuality is most difficult precisely when people are perceived to be unequal, complementary or incomplete.

And this is why gays and lesbians, free from any necessary or conventionally preassigned roles, can staff the school of truly mutual love and friendship, most especially love nourished by friendship.
And, my friends, the greatest irony of all is that such loving relationships, same-sex and different-sex, will save the world, just as the monasteries did through the troubled times of the middle ages, not because that is what they set out to do, not as means to that end, but because God wills it so, and has willed it so from the beginning, when he saw that it was not good to be alone. For just as only self-interest could build the world, only love can finally save and preserve the world. The rabbis were right: the yetzer ha-ra, the inclination to self, plays its role in building up the world; but love is at the heart of tikkun olam, our partnership with God our friend in preserving and bringing to perfection the great work of creation. As Saint Paul’s spiritual grandfather Rabbi Hillel, reflecting on both the inclination to self and the love of others, said, “If I am not for myself, who will be? But if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”

Christ has done us, you see, the great honor of calling us friends, friends of God in Christ and friends of each other. Friends, not servants: no longer in the dark about our friend Jesus’ plan, no longer fallen but raised to new life in him. As God is our true beginning, so too this is our true end: to honor and love God in each other and to find ourselves transformed in this honor and this love. Out of this love a broken world is pieced together, and all illusory divisions lose their capacity to divide — all of them — each and every one: and there is no more slave or free, or Jew or Gentile, or male and female, but all are one in Christ our friend. With this powerful and God-given spirit of friendship, this spirit of encouragement, this consolation and compassion, let us, at the commandment of Christ and following his example as friends together, of the same mind, having the same love, heart to heart and hand in hand, show the world, beloved, what love means. And if not now, when?

— Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

The icon is from my series of "real people" icons, with my Brother in Christ Francis Jonathan as the model.

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