Ambushed by Affection

The British media have recently made a great stir about Pope (St) John Paul II having a close female friend to whom he gave his precious Brown Scapular and with whom he enjoyed a deeply emotional relationship – without any hint that he broke his vows of celibacy. Traditional Catholic wisdom is that one should avoid the “occasions of sin” – but very often, an occasion of sin is also an occasion of great good. If you cut yourself off from close relationships, you also cut off the possibility of experiencing affectionate friendships, and since God is love, God lives in such friendships. Nor can any absolute distinction be made – Pope Benedict XVI has acknowledged that there will always be a blurred line between the self-giving Christian love called agape and the base sexual instinct which is eros. There are two choices – avoid the possibility of close relationships at all; or walk the tightrope which seeks to give and receive affection without straying too far into arousal.

Last month, I wrote about how my way of being an Aspie means I can’t read the emotions in people’s eyes, and since facial expression conveys more than half the emotional content of a human interaction, that’s a pretty significant handicap. Another Aspie has said this:

Neurotypicals faces shine with “looks of love.” They show it with their eyes and tone of voice primarily. Neurotypicals are constantly saying nasty things to each other while at the same time shooting each other looks of love. It’s like saying, “You’re hair looks crazy today,” while their eyes and voice are saying “but I love you for it.” Talk about mixed messages! The same way that Aspies love to figure out riddles and solve puzzles, these are “social” puzzles for neurotypicals that they love playing with and figuring out. It’s considered “sophisticated” social interaction. Plus, the looks of love are very rewarding for them and make them feel warm and fuzzy inside.

Because I can’t sense these “looks of love”, they aren’t going to make me warm and fuzzy inside. But I do have close friends, and it is possible for my friends to communicate something that makes me feel warm and fuzzy. This only happens when someone unmistakeably and directly communicates to me that I am loved. It might be some words whose meaning is crystal clear. It might be an action that helps me with a project, when someone clearly understands what I am trying to achieve. But most commonly it will be because a friend has actually, physically, touched me.

A hand on my shoulder, a kiss on my cheek, an embrace that lingers longer than a perfunctory hug – all of these things can and do tell me that I am loved. But for me, they are not the crescendo in a symphony of love smouldering away in someone’s eyes – if one of my close and trusted friends does this, I find myself ambushed by affection, taking me from no awareness to strong awareness in a moment. This is a bittersweet experience, because it means for me there is only a very narrow gap between the kind of interaction which won’t communicate affection at all, and the kind I want to avoid as a celibate because it would move into sexual arousal.

It also means that I am not very good at using touch to show affection to others. Because what I experience in my life is being ambushed by affection at seemingly random moments, this is what I naturally reproduce in the way I have tried, in the past, to tell my most trusted friends that they are loved. When it is physically possible to offer a backrub or casually touch someone’s arm, I have done so – and until the last year or so, have been puzzled by feedback from friends who have asked me not to try so hard. Surely human beings want to be told that their friends love them, using the appropriate love languages?

I’m only just beginning to understand that the love languages are the icing on the cake, where the sponge-base is the visual communication. That must be why some of my trusted friends have counselled me to “stop trying”, and why I can never seem to join in with “teasing” or adult “play fighting”. What I am trying to do only works when it’s orchestrated as part of the symphony of non-verbal communication, and I can’t hear the basic melody. My friend Chelsea does assure me, though, that my eyes do communicate – she knows that I feel comfortable in her home because she can see it in there.

Not understanding the underlying melody, until now I thought that touch was all about how comfortable am I with you as a person, and you with me. If you put a hand on my shoulder and I’m comfortable with that, I thought that meant “OK, now we are close enough we can put a hand on each other’s shoulder at random moments”. But obviously not – there are much more subtle indicators for context. The meta-golden-rule strikes again!

It’s not easy, learning this as a Catholic priest. There are very few safe relationships in which I can practice. In my professional relationships, I will always err on the side of not touching unless I am absolutely sure it’s OK (holding the hand of a dying person is generally OK). I will never have a wife or experience a dating relationship (I never had a girlfriend before becoming a priest). I’m aware that there are such things as cuddle parties where non-sexual cuddles are available, but I find the idea of being touched affectionately by someone who’s not already a trusted friend quite repellent. In my professional relationships, my constant awareness that I have a duty to keep appropriate boundaries means that unexpected touch from others is always slightly uncomfortable. And that leaves only a small handful of trusted friends who, though they aware of my Aspie diagnosis, do not go out of their way to communicate affection in direct ways which they themselves might find uncomfortable – nor can I talk to them about this often, because I get the impression that conversing about “how do we show love to each other” is uncomfortable in the context of anyone other than a current or future spouse.

Sadly, this means that every time I visit such a friend, I never know whether or not I am going to be ambushed by affection. On a good visit, if I spend 1-2 nights staying in the home of one of my closest friends, there is a 50:50 chance they will do something that effectively communicates affection. There are few things more lonely than driving home from a visit where I experienced no ambush, knowing that one of the few trusted people in my life who could communicate love has failed to do so (through no deliberate fault of their own) and it might now be several months before I next visit a friend by whom I might be ambushed. If I feel warm and fuzzy six times in a year because someone has effectively communicated love, it’s been a good year. That’s not much love to live on, but it looks like it’s all I’m ever going to experience.

Three Kinds of Priest

In the part of the world where I minister, most of the priests around me were trained in the 1960s or 1970s. The majority of these priests are what I call ‘humanitarians’ (some would call then liberals). Their emphasis is the Second Great Commandment. They are concerned first and foremost for the material and emotional wellbeing of people, and often seem keen to set aside those church rules which make life ‘difficult’ (about such things as remarriage, contraception and priestly celibacy). When a group of them get together, they often say rude things about other priests who seem excessively concerned about such things as good liturgy.

At the start of 2015, I attended the conference of the Confraternity of Catholic Clergy in Rome. The key speakers, as advertised, were key Vatican figures with interesting things to say. But the vast majority of priests I networked with at this conference seemed preoccupied with the restoration of the extraordinary form of the liturgy (a.k.a. Tridentine Mass) and how to save the Church from the terrible liberal errors Pope Francis was ‘likely’ to inflict on it around the forthcoming Synod on the Family. This group of clergy (‘conservatives’ or ‘traditionalists’) were just as rude about the liberals as my experience of vice versa. I got a definite sense that this group of priests first and foremost were seeking security of identity, expressed in terms of continuity with the lived experience of the church of the recent past. Any change was a threat not only to practice but to identity.

Some years ago a friend commented that it was easier to get liberals to build a consensus than to get conservatives to do so, because liberals would readily compromise on any solution which was generally good for human beings, while conservatives each had their own highly prized yet subtly different standard for what best expressions of liturgy and doctrine should be.

More recently, I realised there is a third kind of priest – the evangelical, or disciple. This kind of priest is most focussed on what Jesus commanded us to do. Such a priest is not afraid to innovate in those areas where the contemporary church is not currently doing some of the things Jesus commanded – such as evangelising or ministering the healing and prophetic gifts of the Holy Spirit. This is the rarest kind of priest, and I think you will find that they will speak sadly, but not rudely, about their colleagues who have allowed care for other human beings or their own security of identity to come before the First Great Commandment, to love God with all one’s heart, mind and strength.

Of course, anyone who truly loves God must necessarily love their neighbour; but if we are confident that God has said, through the church, that artificial contraception, abortion, euthanasia and direct co-operation with weapons of mass destruction are wrong in all circumstances, we cannot invoke the ‘public good’ defence implicit in the Second Great Commandment, to justify them. Any priest who was sworn the ordination oath of fidelity to celebrate liturgy and teach doctrine according to the norms of the Church is duty bound not to innovate – but that still leaves room to explore the spirit of the law, and does not bind the senior officials of the church from adjusting liturgies and developing doctrines, for they have the authority to do so.

There are not only three kinds of priests, of course. There are three kinds of lay Catholics, three kinds of deacons and three kinds of bishops. I doubt we can have more than one kind of Pope at any one time, though!