09 November 2017

For our relationships.


The 2nd of 15 in a Series of Meditations on the 15 daily intentions offered by members of the Angelic Warfare Confraternity.

After praying for the world around us, we pray that all of our relationships may be "holy, healthy, pure, and honorable at all times." It would be very easy (as with praying for the world) to only worry about sex in this context. I do find you hot, so I'll be your friend. In some parts of our culture we might even sleep together once or twice just to "get that out of the way" and get on with being friends. In other parts of our culture that might ruin the friendship. Yet "holy, healthy, pure, and honorable" is not just about sex. This is about love. 


It's easy to sexually objectify some people in my life. It is easier when people in my life are also objectified in other ways. We pray to make all of our relationships, "holy, healthy, pure and honorable at all times." This is not just about sex. The real question, again, is how do we live our prayer? How can we come to a place of sexual purity when any part of our life is not an action of love?  How do we make every part an action of love?

Sins are ever intertwined. My confessor once pointed out the connection between pride and lust and my mind was blown. Many preparations for confession will list a sin and its "children". Discussions of the virtues will point out sins that arise from a paucity of a virtue, on the one hand, and a superfluity of the same on the other. You can't work on just sex and lust alone: the chaste life is a balanced, prudent life, holding to the center in all its aspects. Your relationships - with your friends, yes, but also with your family, your fellow parishioners, your coworkers, your politicians - must be part of this balance.

What do we mean by friends? Yes, from time to time, I have made friends with people because they were physically attractive (picking a PCP at my doctor's office was like using a Sears catalogue). I've even manipulated some of those friendships (or allowed them to be manipulated) into sexual play. But more often I've made friends to get something. This is especially true on the internet where "friends" are virtual. I might "request a friendship" or "follow" a friend of a friend, or a random stranger that has posted something interesting. Some folks I know seem to friend only clergy of their denomination (this seems especially true of recent converts). These friends might never meet them face to face - but now I "have them".  "My friend posted on twitter..." I might say, which is so much easier than "this person I've never met but seems always to have the hot take on a topic said..." One way I've learned to overcome this is to either only become online-friends with people I know or else to meet in physical space with people as often as I can: to prevent them from becoming, as it were, just a personal website with better customer service.

When I go to a new place, who do I reach out to for contact? Is it the people in the center of power (whatever that might be in the coffee shop or parish where I find myself)? Or is it the people who can help me best? This is a logical choice for a business contact, yes, but is it the way I navigate in other parts of my life? Do I enjoy being able to say I am friends with the rich and famous or the relish the number of clergy I can call by their first names because I actually know them? Or do I make friends where ever I am and happen to be?

Do I mistreat my family? Not physically - although that's a problem in some families! Do I look down on them as undereducated? Am I "sad for them" that they don't get to live in a city or college as awesome as the one I live in? Do I think they "might not understand" all the cool things that happen to me on a day to day basis and so I don't bother to share my life any more? Do I fight with them when I'm home? Do I find myself trapped in the confusing, passive aggressive patterns of a teenager whenever I talk to my parents? Or is everything smoothed over and hidden from view, cold and crisp in public, but seething inside? Do I want people to imagine I have the perfect family and so I hide the rough spots and the awkward moments from view.

Do I emotionally manipulate my coworkers? Do I verbally abuse my employees? Do I badmouth my superiors? Do I gossip? Do I use flirtation and other tools to get things done when respect and candid communication would be better? 

"What's love got to do with it?" (Tina Turner).  Each of these questions point out absences of love: failures to see the other person as a person, failure to relate in humble veneration to the Icon of God, present, living, and active. One solution is to withdraw, of course: hide from others and only reach out in slow, measured ways that can be controlled. Yet how loving can I be when I give myself no chance to love at all?

There is a Byzantine prayer used daily at Vespers that asks God to protect us "from all adverse powers of the Devil, and from vain thoughts and from evil imaginations." Vain thoughts are first person thoughts. Evil imaginations are in the second and third person. This prayer came up in the context of a discussion about how easy it is to pre-judge others and then relate to them based on that judgment. If I think you don't like me, I will act as if you don't already - which may make you dislike me as a result. But vain thoughts and evil imaginations go together, right? I am the center of the universe, so, of course you were just thinking about me...

With this habit of evil imaginations, all relationships can be thrown off. On the light end of the spectrum, it can be a humorous assumption that someone you randomly met would remember you after the passage of time. Why would not that college professor remember a "B- student" after 25 years? What wouldn't they remember me, they see me every day on the N train at 7:30. Or think of those humorous scenes in old movies where the Car Mechanic thinks every girl that comes into the shop must want his phone number. On the other end of the spectrum it can be really dark: those two coworkers talking in the corner must be talking about you, right? Evil imaginations are hard to overcome because they color the love that actually exists. If I imagine that you hate me then even the times you show me great love get diminished into that projected pattern. 

To overcome all of these - evil imaginations and all the other ways our relationships fail to be holy, healthy, pure, and honorable - Love is the answer. Not "our love for each other" or even "God's love for all of us" but rather my active love for the other. Your active love for the other. Love, in the first person, directed to second and third persons everywhere. Agape, that Christian idea of love that is understood to be most like God's love for us, is not, of course, one directional, but it never requires two directions. Agape is to always be present, even when it is only one way - from the "I" to the "you".  Reading all actions through the filter of love destroys evil imaginations. First presenting all our intended actions on the altar of agape weeds out selfishness, ego, manipulation, and passive aggression. 

Love has everything to do with everything. Any time there are two persons interacting, two icons of the living God, if there is not agape, there is sin. 

The noun agape comes from the same Greek root as the verb "agapao". The latter means to entertain, or to show hospitality. That will give you an idea of what Agape means as a noun. To be a lover, an Agape-er is to show hospitality, to actively Agapao, to be deeply concerned with the wellbeing, the safety, the honor of the guest. That person, that icon of God in front of you, is the guest. In the first person, always is the host, it is the second person that is the guest: always. You are the guest, never me.

And so to enter into a relationship with a guest for the purpose of getting something out of the relationship - a contract, a better job, a position in the choir, sex - this is the sin of Sodom, really. The inhospitality of a relationship not built on holiness, purity, health, truth, and honor at all times.

This hospitality, this agapao, is an outward a function of our Chastity. When "all of our relationships are holy, healthy, pure, and honorable at all times", then we can entertain strangers often and, at times, entertain angels unawares. The Epistle to the Hebrews uses other words for "entertain" there, but the point is well made: as we welcome and venerate the icon of God in those around us we enter into what the Byzantines call "the angelic life". We move through the world in Love, not hindered by sex, certainly, but also not hindered by our demands on the other, our pride of place, our "rights". Instead, in love we give way before the other, and offer veneration to God.