Priests in Black Gowns

October 29, 2011

Growing up in an evangelical church, the phrase “Seven Deadly Sins” was more of a cultural catch phrase than anything else. (I vividly remember watching an episode of America’s Next Top Model in which the seven sins were featured as a photo shoot theme…let’s just say gluttony as illustrated by a stick-thin model was a little hard to buy.) So I have to admit, when I saw “The Seven Deadly Sins” as a heading in our reading for Inquirer’s Class* last week, I was taken aback/weirded out/nervous. But I’m glad that didn’t stop me from reading, because I actually learned a lot.

For one, our priest explained that the point of identifying the seven sins is not to invoke guilt, but rather to provide a vocabulary for things that all of us struggle with. And though identification of sin is helpful and necessary, stopping there does little good; learning about the corresponding virtue is even more important. He reminded us of something I always forget: as a Christian (and a human), I will never be able to conquer sin by trying not to sin. Rather, I conquer sin by growing in virtue, which I must ask for and receive from God.

God, by His Spirit, offers me patience when I am angry. He offers me humility when I am proud, kindness when I am jealous, chastity when I am lustful, diligence when I am lazy, temperance when I am gluttonous, generosity when I am greedy.

It is grace in the first place that I might even see my sin, because, as Harriet Beecher Stowe reminds me in her book The Minister’s Wooing, I often see what I want to see:

Evil is never embraced undisguised, as evil, but under some fiction which the mind accepts and with which it has the singular power of blinding itself in the face of daylight.

And most of my willingness to disguise evil as good probably comes from a misunderstanding of the law. Do I really believe that fighting sin and asking for virtue is what’s best for me? Not just “best” meaning it’s what I should be doing because God tells me to, but “best” meaning it’s what I was created for, and what brings real fulfillment and lasting joy? Not always.

A few weeks ago in Torrey, we read and discussed the poems of William Blake. He’s a tough read, but a brilliant poet. And he was much easier to understand once we identified one of his foundational assumptions: Blake doesn’t believe the law brings about his good. Even though he loved much of the Bible, he found the 10 Commandments and many of Paul’s calls to virtue restrictive and even imprisoning.

Perhaps Blake’s least favorite virtue is chastity, and given his view of what chastity is—basically, the forced repression of natural and good passions—it’s no wonder the man wasn’t enthusiastic about it.

In his poem “The Garden of Love,” Blake writes:

“And priests in black gowns, were walking their rounds

And binding with briars, my joys and desires.”

Again, Blake’s dislike of the law makes a lot more sense given that he thinks it’s primary purpose is to stifle, not shape, desire.

For the past few weeks I have been reading bits and pieces of Kathleen Norris’ s The Cloister Walk in my free time, and I think she provides a compelling critique of Blake’s viewpoint (still pretty common in our culture today) in her reflections on celibacy. (Though celibacy isn’t commanded in the Bible and therefore shouldn’t be categorized under the “law” that Blake rails against, it’s obviously an example of religious restraint.)

Norris, a poet for whom “literature had seemed an adequate substitute for religion” most of her life, somehow ended up on two extended residencies among Benedictine monks. The Cloister Walk is a fragmented collection of her reflections on her residencies, tracing how she came to value and even love the Benedictine tradition.

Perhaps one of the most controversial topics Norris discusses is that of celibacy. The fact that she interacted with celibate men and women daily for months at a time, befriending them and asking them difficult questions, gives her more authority than most on the subject. She writes:

“That celibacy constitutes the hatred of sex seems to be a given in the popular mythology of contemporary America, and we need only look at newspaper accounts of sex abuse by priests to see evidence that celibacy isn’t working. One could well assume that this is celibacy, impure and simple. And this is unfortunate, because celibacy practiced rightly is not at all a hatred of sex; in fact it has the potential to address the sexual idolatry of our culture in a most helpful way.”

The end of celibacy, Norris argues, isn’t virginity (after all, these monks believe sex can be good and holy). Abstinence is rather a means to develop a new perspective towards the people you interact with:

“I’ve seen young monks astonish an obese and homely college student by listening to her with as much interest and respect as to her conventionally pretty roommate…They’ve learned how to listen without possessiveness, without imposing themselves… Celibacy, simply put, is a form of ministry—not an achievement one can put on a résumé but a simple form of service to others…In theological terms, it is a concept I find extremely hard to grasp. All I can do it catch a glimpse of people who are doing it, incarnating celibacy in a mysterious and gracious way.”

Like Norris, I think I can learn a lot from these Benedictine monks’ commitment to celibacy. They remind me that sacrifice can bring a hidden sort of freedom—freedom to serve neighbors wholeheartedly, and to love better. It’s not Blake’s freedom (doing what I want when I want to), but, unfortunately, I think I’ve tried that enough to know it’s not as great as it sounds.


*my church is offering a 10-week course on the history/practices/beliefs of the Anglican church. As part of a writing project, I am using this space to reflect on each week’s class.