All posts by aspiepriest

I'm a Catholic priest, diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome.

Learning from Experience

When was the last time you made a big mistake?

Typical human beings have an important safety mechanism: that little voice in the back of the head which is constantly saying : “What would other people think of me if I did such-and-such?”

My Aspie brain doesn’t do that automatically, so I have to use my reasoning to anticipate when my actions could prove awkward to others. What do I draw on to make such decisions? Principles about right and wrong, and lessons from the school of hard knocks!

I’d like to share two examples of mistakes typical human beings might not have made. They are both mistakes I have never repeated, because I learned quickly from those experiences – but they were deeply embarrassing at the time.

The first story comes from the days when I was a university student living in a shared house with male and female residents. One day a group of us were enjoying a conversation in the kitchen, and I was standing alongside another resident. In the flow of conversation, I made a comment about something that “would set your heart racing” and to emphasise the point, reached across to tap the resident on the chest.

But the resident was a woman.

Now, I know very well that a gentleman does not touch a lady’s breasts, and I have never groped a woman in my life. But my inner “program” which says “don’t touch a woman’s breasts” didn’t have that extra line of code which says “trying to tap a woman’s chest from alongside her will be interpreted as trying to grope her, don’t do it”.

Fortunately, no harm came of the incident, apart from some teasing among the residents about “the day I tried to grope so-and-so”. But that day I learned a new rule: “Don’t go anywhere near a woman’s chest even if it’s not the breast you are trying to touch.” Could I have worked out that rule in advance if I had thought through the scenario slowly? Probably yes, but it was never a scenario I had anticipated.

The other story comes from my time as a seminarian, when I was on a weekly placement in a high school. Now, what are the principles of school chaplaincy? You are there to “get alongside” the students, winning trust and building relationships. You are not there as a disciplinarian – leave that to the teaching staff. One break time I found a group of teenagers playing some game throwing balls (or were they apples?) at tin cans set up to be knocked over, so I joined in and started “larking around with them”. One of the staff members observed this, and I was called into the Head’s office. I was told in no uncertain terms that this was “unprofessional” – and so on that day I learned a clear limit and I have never made the same kind of mistake again.

I’m sharing these stories because they may be useful for professionals who have to manage Aspies. Has your Aspie made a serious social error like this? I would encourage you to ask them about their track record. Have they made similar errors in the past? Have they been able to learn from each error and not make the same kind of mistake again? If your Aspie is teachable, and willing to learn from their latest error, you can expect diligence in ensuring it does not happen again.

There’s an adage in business that you should recruit for “character, not competence” – because you can train a recruit of good character, but you can’t correct the flaws of a bad but competent character. Please remember that an Aspie’s character is to be ignorant of the social norms which typical human beings intuit, and that for an Aspie, good social skills are an acquired competence.  If your Aspie is a character willing to learn from their experience, you have no need to be concerned.

Advertisements

Worthy Celebration

Some say that there is a special poignancy to praying the Office of Readings in the small hours of the night. I haven’t tried that often, though I did once visit a Cistercian monastery and joined the monks for 3 am prayer. Did it enhance my experience of prayer? No.

I guess for the typical human being, where praying is as much about the emotional side as the rational side, there is a daily rhythm which shapes the emotions and affects the way praying is received. That doesn’t work for me.

A monastery is the acme of liturgical prayer, a community designed to prioritise the worthy celebration of the Liturgy of the Hours, day in, day out. For the likes of us secular clergy, we don’t have the luxury of a day relatively free of apostolic work, or a community to chant the Office with us.

Cardinal Sarah has been in the news recently for his quotes on not using an electronic device to pray the Divine Office and not taking photos of the liturgy. I can see what he is getting it. What would be the most perfect way to celebrate the Sacred Liturgy? It would be to perform the prayers with serene recollection from a worthy book set apart for this function alone.

But… saints have been added to the calendar since my breviary was printed. When I prayed the office of the Korean Martyrs on 20 September, I prayed the psalms from my breviary, but found the Proper Second Reading on my iPhone. One of my altar Missals is annotated in pen to remind me to mention St Joseph in the Eucharistic Prayers. Another has the Proper of St John Paul II glued into a blank page. The most perfect way of celebrating the liturgy would be with newly updated volumes, but these do not exist; so I am forced to choose between two kinds of perfection – production quality or completeness of content.

I do recognise that there is something lacking in using an electronic device for prayer – only a few weeks ago I made a conscious decision to use my breviary book more often in preference to the electronic options available, knowing that the electronic glow does create a different “feel”. But there are also times on dark evenings when a self-illuminating tablet disrupts the atmosphere of my chapel less than the impact of putting on the electric light to read from a book. And I often switch to “flight mode” during prayer lest I am distracted by incoming messages.

There are days when I race through one or more hours of the Divine Office because I am trying to squeeze it in between pastoral duties. If I were free to choose, I wouldn’t pray that way; but once I have committed myself to the needs of my parishioners and the activities of my diocese, I do not have total freedom – I am beholden to needs and demands not of my own making. The Gospels make it clear that I honour God less by neglecting the needs of others to pray more fully, when I have an opportunity to attend to the present needs of persons in distress. This also means there is a trade-off between attending to God in the liturgy, and serving God in my neighbour. My ordination vows to pray five rounds of the Divine Office each day were made prior to me entering any pastoral context where those rounds must be accommodated to ministry not entirely under my control.

Must every liturgy aim at “maximum worthiness”? I recognise that there are “protocol occasions” when every gesture must be carefully calibrated, when we mean to communicate something to God and to the congregation present by ensuring that every hierarch processes in the proper order, every saint takes their chronological place in a litany, and each vestment belongs to a matching set. Yet a loving couple will dress in their finest for a black tie dinner while being comfortable slobbing casually in each other’s company for the exact some reason – the love between them. Are there not times when the love that flows between God and us makes it just as appropriate to pray very casually as it does to use liturgical bells and whistles?

I will also plead guilty – sorry, Cardinal Sarah – to sometimes taking photos while concelebrating on a sanctuary. I never use a flash, and I keep my camera discreetly hidden until I need to use it. I only do so at ‘low’ times in the Mass, perhaps when a new priest is receiving his vestments, not when I am meant to be speaking words of concelebration.  Why do I do so at all? Sometimes my position gives my a unique vantage point which enables me to get a shot of a key moment. That photo is intended to be used for evangelisation, promoting the work of the church – not for the satisfaction of my own personal photo album. So I do this out of love for God who commands me to share the Gospel, as well as love for my neighbour who will be enhanced by recieving it.

Cardinal Sarah argues that the purpose of the liturgy is for me to engage in an intense listening to God, demanding my undivided attention. I don’t know how that works for typical human beings, but I know that for me, as an Aspie, I don’t usually sense God speaking to me during liturgy. And on those rare moments when I believe God has inspired a thought, it’s usually about the content of some upcoming sermon or personal dilemma, which needs to be set down in writing as soon as that particular liturgy is over.

For me, going to liturgy is rather like being the paralysed man at the pool of Bethzatha – maybe someone receives a touch of God’s presence, but it’s not me. I haven’t quite been a Catholic for 38 years, but it’s coming close!

Them and Us

During my summer travels, I visited a science festival – that’s something I’ve always enjoyed since my teens. But now I have an added purpose: when I attend lectures on psychology or sociology, I am also looking out for tips about how typical human beings function. The lecturer explains the facet they are investigating – and now, when I think “I didn’t know some people’s brains worked like that,” I note that this is probably a clue about most human beings, present company excepted.

For instance, I recently heard about a research study dividing 5-year-old children into groups which were identified by wearing a yellow scarf or a green scarf. Immediately the children started identifying with ‘their’ colour, willing to express dislike for those wearing the opposite colour. In a German study, children would keep a secret entrusted to ‘their’ group but quickly betray a confidence about the ‘other’ group.

It’s always puzzled me why I should be loyal to ‘my’ group rather than even-handed to all comers. I would happily identify myself equally as a citizen of my nation, my state, my region and my continent, and regret that international borders mean that someone can’t simply choose to live in my country should they so wish. I see now that this goes beyond the Aspie trait of being extremely principled, but has an added dimension of not being wired to favour ingroups over outgroups.

Another study showed that identity was highly malleable: if you tell experimental subjects that the study is about ‘soccer fans’ then they will show altruism to someone in a rival team shirt over someone in a plain T-shirt because the rival fan is part of the ‘ingroup’. But tell a similar fan that you are studying supporters of their team, and the rival fan is now deemed part of the ‘outgroup’ and not extended the same altruism as you would show those wearing the colours of your own team.

Further, part of the art of being a demagogue is to get a group of people to identify as part of your ingroup, and amplify positive differences compared to ‘them’, whoever your outgroup might happen to be. This drives me to conflict as a pastor: is intentional creation of an ‘ingroup’ a necessary part of being an effective leader of a congregation, or unethical manipulation of souls? Certainly Jesus challenged the Jewish ‘ingroup’ identity by telling the parable of the Good Samaritan.

One final thought, for the researchers: if you are writing a paper about some ‘Them and Us’ phenomenon, do you really want to be cited as ‘Principal Author et al.’? (Think about the Latin…)

Aspie on Vacation

I’m on vacation!

That’s not so easy, being an Aspie. I’ve got this sense that friends expect me to kick back and enjoy myself… but how?

This year, for my summer vacation, I am travelling through a non-English-speaking country. My command of the local language is enough to get by, but not to understand what other people are saying. (Maybe for typical human beings, picking up the emotions adds to understanding what others are trying to communicate… for me, I can learn phrases and understand the written language fairly well, but human beings speaking in real time? Too much, too fast!)

I’ve already blogged about how I don’t really take in what art is trying to communicate. When travelling in a country where English isn’t common, that severely limits my options. Art galleries, classical or popular music were never going to be my choice anyway… and now theatre and cinema are also off the menu. Thankfully my iPhone can play me English downloads while I am driving around!

Another culture also means  different food. It’s not always easy to work out what will actually arrive based on the description on the menu. Since I am quite particular about what I will or won’t eat, that’s also a problem. There are, of course, the big international brands… but I don’t feel I am doing justice to a vacation if I settle for a Subway or a McDonald’s unless there is no other choice.

Being a priest, I am visiting various cathedrals and historic churches. But to what end? I don’t “feel the atmosphere” when I go into such a building. I quickly tire of learning about the architectural features which distinguish a building. If there are stained glass windows or beautiful sculptures, I can give them a quick look and think “Hmm. that’s nice” – and move on.

You may be wondering why I am on vacation at all. I’m in this country travelling to an international retreat followed by a visit to friends. So I am making a virtue of a necessity. A vacation at least allows time to catch up on books I don’t have time to read during the rest of the year. And yes, I confess I have taken my laptop, so I can do my annual tidy-up of the photo collection!

Now, tourism is clearly important for typical humans. What do they feel when standing in some historic place of prayer, or ruined abbey, or ancient castle? Is it about identity? Atmosphere? How many of them are feeling social pressure to “do what tourists do” without necessarily enjoying it? If you are a non-Aspie reader of this blog, I’d appreciate knowing what you do on your vacation, and more importantly, why you do it. Answers to AspiePriest@gmx.com!

During and After

When do you feel the emotions associated with key moments in your life? Are you conscious of them in the moment, or only once you have time afterwards to process what has gone on?

I find in my life, I tend to have stronger emotions reflecting on what previously happened, than in the moment (though there are exceptions).

When I was an undergraduate, my friend Kate gave me an unexpected kiss when I made her tea at a black tie dinner – she didn’t like coffee. In the course of the next 48 hours it dawned on me that a beautiful woman of my own age had given me a kiss (for the first time ever in my life) – and I woke up to the fact I was living among a community of touching, feeling, human beings and not really taking part (a bittersweet awakening).

Much more recently, celebrating a significant anniversary of my priesthood, a friend I hadn’t seen for nearly 20 years (and who hadn’t RSVP’d to say she was coming) surprised me by turning up, and leaning in close when someone took a photo for us. This is all the more precious because that friend had left me a note, rather then saying goodbye in person, when our work situations took us in different directions. Although I didn’t feel powerful emotions at the party, my long-term memory of that event is marked by very positive feelings.

Throughout the two decades when I’ve woken up to interpersonal emotions, I’ve had more experiences of this kind (“I’m really glad that happened”) than times I have felt something positive in the moment (“I never want this moment to end”). Awkwardly, I think the latter sort have only ever happened when I’ve been touched by a person I have “fallen in love with” at some point in my life. 

Is it the interpersonal chemistry itself which is enabling the feelings in my otherwise unfeeling psyche? Is it the rare fulfilment of a desire to be close to that particular person? Or is it simply that in these cases the emotional volume is loud enough for me to hear what is always there but which I am otherwise deaf to?

To look at it another way, how might I feel when someone touches me or hugs me?

Warm and fuzzy – but this solely applies when it’s a person I not only trust but also experience some chemistry with.

Intellectually satisfied – when someone I trust but don’t have chemistry with, because I recognise the sign of affection

Annoyed – when it’s someone I have given verbal or body-language signals to, that I do not wish to be touched.

I wonder how much of this is peculiar to my Aspergers’ way of experiencing the world, and to what extent it is true for typical human beings?

Ear, Nose and Throat

When I was a child, I enjoyed going swimming – but every time I went in the water, I got a sore throat afterwards. As an adult, I chose not to swim for many years. Then, on a business trip in a hotel with a swimming pool, I decided to give swimming another try. And – you guessed it! – a sore throat followed as night follows day!

I think I am more susceptible to picking up passing bugs than the average person, but that’s difficult to prove rigorously. Being autistic, I have a tendency to answer a polite “How are you are?” by commenting on my state of health rather than the conventional “Fine, how are you?” – and friends often reply, “Not another cold, surely?” But if the typical human being doesn’t comment on passing ailments so readily, maybe it just seems like I catch more colds.

There is some clinical evidence  (paper, commentary) that autism is linked with increased ear infections (otitis media), so I do wonder if my Aspie body has some special vulnerability to picking up bugs every time I go into the swimming pool. When I was about 30 – long after I gave up swimming – I got such a severe ear-nose-and-throat infection that I lost my balance for 4 weeks, and the doctors had to try four different kinds of antibiotics before they identified one that could clear up my tubes. That was a wretched month, lying in bed because I couldn’t walk anywhere without falling over! For about four years after that infection, I had such a thick production of phlegm that I had to cough – a very hawking kind of cough – to clear my throat every 10-15 minutes. This did not make me popular in company.

On the subject of ears, a word about singing. When I was in school, my music teacher asked me to stop singing, saying I was putting the class off. But at seminary, every student was expected to sing, and I had one-to-one coaching. After about four years, my coach identified a rather unusual problem – I couldn’t resolve the notes in a chord – sometimes I couldn’t even tell which of two notes was higher. To learn a new piece of music, I had to have someone play the basic melody free of all chords and harmonies. Then I could learn the pattern, and would be able to hold it against richer backing music.

I can’t carry a tune easily when a song is written in multi-part harmony. The only time I ever found that easy was when I was seated among a dozen other bass singers in a large music practice – then I could lock on to the people around me and not be distracted by the other parts. But I can’t keep my part in my head when I can only hear the other parts being performed.

The funny thing is, I enjoy singing. I am very attentive to structure, and have the confidence to start the words in the right place, even when they begin at an off-beat most people miss. I also will choose to sing the echo part during a well-known worship song even if there isn’t a lead musician animating the echoes. Those “mechanistic” bits of music I get, and I enjoy – but I have already written about how the emotion of music, for me, is all about past context, not about responding to the emotional narrative intended by the composer.

 

I would value feedback from fellow Aspies, or their parents, reading this blog. In your experience, do Aspies get more sore throats than their siblings or friends when swimming? Do any other Aspies suffer from the same musical fault of not resolving a chord? As with all such anecdotal evidence, a few examples prove nothing. But if this is common among Aspies, it might just be worth clinicians doing a more extensive study to establish of there is a correlation – and if so, to consider why this would be the case.

The Logic of Lewis

Continuing my consideration of C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity, let’s turn to his views on theology – the science of God (pages 130-100).

A map or photo is not as exciting as the experience of the real thing, but the map gives the “big picture” that makes sense of the local experience. In the same way, any experience of the presence of God will be more authentic for us than any work of theology, but experience alone gives a “vague religion” which is all thrills and no work.

If we took Jesus’ advice on how to treat one another, would the world be a better place? Yes, but the human race has never been very good at embracing the teachings of its moralists. If Jesus is the very best moralist, that only makes it even less likely that his lofty values will be attained than any other teacher’s!

There is more to Christianity than simply making this world a better place (though that matters too). Full Christianity goes beyond this “populist” Christianity be claiming that we become sons of God by attaching ourselves to Christ – our sonship is not automatic.

Here AspiePriest is relieved to see that Lewis follows the logic of Scripture which says we are adopted as sons of God through baptism, and therefore those not baptised are not God’s children – though still made in the image of God. In my experience most churchgoers will claim that all human beings are, by virtue of their humanity, children of God.

Man has biological life but is called to spiritual life – these are of such different orders that it is misleading to use the same word “life” for both. Lewis uses Bios for physical life and Zoe for spiritual life. We are like statues promised we will one day actually come to life!

How can God be more than a person without being “impersonal”? A human trying to understand God is like an inhabitant of Flatland trying to contemplate a cube when all that can be seen is a square passing through that two-dimensional world; the evidence suggests God is three persons and one nature, though we cannot comprehend the whole of God from our limited experience. God is Love – which means God cannot be a solo identity. But that’s not the same as making “feelings of love” into a god!

A group of people working together might be said to have the “group spirit”. In the same way, that which is common to Father and Son is the Holy Spirit, which can get into us and work through us – giving us the good infection of Zoe, which we are called to spread.

If you want to study an animal, watch it without frightening it. If you want to study another human person, enter conversation as equals. But if you want to study God, you must allow God to reveal Himself to you; and this He can do only insofar as your soul is pure. The best tool for seeing God is the Christian community as a whole.

 

God is outside time, and does not experience its passage. So we need not fret about God having to listen to millions of people praying “at once” and Christ was not sustaining the universe “at the same time” as spending 33 years on Earth; rather, he who inhabited timeless eternity was also present in the constraints of human time.

Christ (his spirit, as opposed to the physical body of Jesus) was begotten by the Father at the beginning of time. Imagine book B resting on book A. Now imagine this had always been the case. But B’s position can’t be understood without A’s. This is how we can imagine the son being begotten by the Father eternally.

From God’s timeless perspective, all human beings are connected. All are therefore affected when one of them is God incarnate. But each individual must appropriate the Zoe on offer by an act of will.

 

Why did God not simply beget many sons? Our “adoption” would not have been a painful process were it not for the Fall. And if more than one Son were begotten, what would make them distinct?

Our connectedness does not deny our individual distinctiveness. To emphasise either to the exclusion of the other would be a serious error; as in so many things, the truth lies in the via media.

This post has been largely a summary of Lewis’s writing. AspiePriest is pleased that Lewis’s thinking corresponds with his own in all of these matters. The question of whether there can be more than one distinct Son is rather like the questions in particle physics about how many distinct kinds of particle can exist…

 

Faith, Hope and Charity

Continuing my consideration of C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity, let’s turn now to questions of Faith, Hope and Charity (pages 112-129). These are known as the ‘theological virtues’ – and a virtue is a self-reinforcing good practice which we must choose to work at.

Lewis sees our human existence is a constant balancing act between reason and emotion. Even though we know certain things are true, and should give us security, our fears and other emotions can cause us to panic and doubt. For a new Christian believer, one who has recently become convinced of the weight of evidence that Christianity is true, this new faith will be challenged by an emotional storm – and sooner rather than later. Maybe this is borne of some piece of bad news, or perhaps it is because a powerful desire rises up for something known to be contrary to Christian morals. Daily devotions help reinforce what we know to be true in the face of our changing moods.

One of the perks of being an Aspie is that, having reached the point of deciding that Christianity (and its Catholic flavour) are intrinsically true, my faith is rarely rocked by passing moods. Yes, I have experienced “low spells” in my life where things have been difficult in work and relationships, but these seldom caused me to doubt God’s existence. There’s no passage in the Bible which promises a trouble-free life for Christians – our loved ones will get sick, die, and suffer the misfortunes of earthly existence.

Lewis comments that only those who have come to the point of “surrendering to Christ” will understand what it means to have this experience of deep conversion. This may be experienced in a flash or recognised in hindsight as something that happened immeasurably over years. Often it is borne of confronting one’s utter inability to resist temptation.

For me, there was a key year in the mid-1990s when two things happened. The first was that I was weighed down with the experience of wanting a relationship I couldn’t have, with a friend who was losing her faith. After months of agony, I said to God, “You must carry this burden, I can’t hold it any more.” On that day, I prayed in tongues for the first time. A few months later, having been resisting the idea of the call to priesthood, I surrendered to God and said: “You know best, show me what you want me to do in life – even if it is becoming a Catholic priest.” It was on this day – not the day I became a Catholic a few years before – that I made the intellectual decision to entrust myself to Jesus as Lord of every aspect of my life.

Faith is a virtue – that is, a daily practice to put into place. It means continuing to act according to the teachings of Jesus whatever life may throw at us. To believe is less about knowing things intellectually and more about “putting our trust in” Christ.

Lewis turns his attention to hope. Humans generally experience a longing for “something more”. Whatever we delight in, the delight fades. Some people use their life to chase “experiences” but nothing will ultimately satisfy. Others, more pragmatic, choose to stop “chasing rainbows” and settle for what they have; and may project an air of “superiority” to those they regard as adolescents chasing dreams. Lewis argues that desires exist because there is something capable of fulfilling them, and these unmet human desires are a signal to us that heaven exists. The picture-language used in the Bible to describe heaven merely points to its qualities – music for ecstasy, gold for eternity, crowns for power and splendour.

I’m not with Lewis 100% on the idea that if longing exists, the sought-for thing must exist somewhere in its fullness. I’m sure evolutionary biology can give some account of how a species benefits from a hard-wired drive to aspire – when suitable fruits are there to be harvested, aspiration pays off, and as long as not too much energy is expended on wild-goose chases, this strategy will succeed. But I do think I ‘get’ the idea of this unfulfilled longing. For me, it happens when surfing the Internet randomly – that sense that there is some page out there, just a click away, which has a funnier joke or a more interesting story, if only I knew what to click. I’ll just have to take Lewis’s word for it that music is the best way to experience ‘ecstasy’, as I’ve said before, music just doesn’t connect for me.

As for Christian charity, or love, Lewis is clear that this is a choice, not a feeling. It begins with behaving “as if” you love others and grows into affection for them. This is good news for Aspies! We can’t always feel, but we can choose to do good for others. (It is important, however, to check that our actions are appreciated by others and are not merely what the other person would like if they too were an Aspie!)

Lewis reflects on his very fresh memory of Nazi Germany to see how those who chose to act with friendliness or hostility to certain ethnic groups grew into a genuine love or hatred for those groups, by the very actions they chose to take. For my part, I know there was one occasion in my life when a person I instinctively didn’t like asked for my friendship. I made a deliberate choice to overcome those instincts and am glad to say that person is now a good and worthwhile friend.

As a Lenten reflection, I’ll leave you with this idea from Lewis. Do you doubt whether you love God? Ask yourself “What would I do if I was sure I loved God?” Go do it.

 

A Modest Proposal

Continuing my consideration of C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity, let’s turn to his views on Christian sexual morality and marriage (pages 84-100).

Lewis distinguishes chastity from modesty, and explains how modesty depends on a social convention about what is deemed ‘acceptable’ – a Pacific island woman can display considerably more bare flesh than a Victorian lady! But each culture has its standards, and when these are known, deliberate breaking of them is a means of communicating sexual desire and exciting lust. Lewis also notes that when subcultures with different standards co-exist (consider two generations in the same society), there is a temptation to accuse the more conservative subculture of being prudes or puritans.

How objective is respect? Is it really “more reverent” to receive Holy Communion on the tongue than in the hand? Or is reverence an attitude of heart, which God alone discerns while others judge outward appearances?

Lewis opines that accidental infringements of modesty through ignorance or carelessness is “bad manners”.

Ah! Here we are in the fraught territory, especially incomprehensible to the autistic mind, of non-verbal communication in the context of a shared understanding of certain cultural values. To judge whether something is “modest” is akin to judging with something is “fashionable”, and can only be done properly by a human being who knows how to read the fast-moving currents of changing opinion, and knows what a certain way of dressing is meant to signal between two people who understand the same code.

In last Saturday’s Divine Office (Week 6 of Ordinary Time), Pope Pius XII commented that “a modest wife is a boon twice over”. Previously, when this annual reading came around, I interpreted the modest wife as being “the woman who covers up”. But in the light of what I’ve just written, it might be more fitting to understand the modest woman as the one who “does not flirt, but uses the right social conventions to signal that she is faithfully committed to her husband.” The text goes on to say:

Her looks and words enter into the souls of her family, softening them, touching them, raising them up from the tumult of emotion… The wife is like the sun shining in the family by… the appropriateness of her dress and bearing, adorned by her open and honest way of life. Subtle signs of feeling, shades of expression, silences and unmalicious smiles, little nods of approval … If only you could know the full depth of the feelings of love and gratitude that such a perfect wife and mother inspires in her husband and children!

Ah! If only! But I’m an Aspie, so I can’t know that from my own lived experience. I’ll just have to take it on trust.

It seems, then, that there are two dimensions of chaste dress. One is ‘modesty properly so-called’, the intentional use of well-understood social conventions to advertise one’s availability or unavailability for a marital relationship in a social context. The other dimension concerns the acts of charity involved in dressing in such a way as to not provoke undue levels of involuntary sexual arousal in other people. This can never be done perfectly, because some people will have fetishes about parts of the body normally on display, and even separation of the sexes cannot guard against arousal from same-sex attraction.

Meanwhile, C. S. Lewis and Pope Pius XII inspired me to search for perspectives on “modesty” online. The Catechism has something to say, and many sites quote the much-misattributed “Vatican Guidelines” (see also my PS):

…a dress cannot be called decent which is cut deeper than two fingers’ breadth under the pit of the throat, which does not cover the arms at least to the elbows, and scarcely reaches a bit beyond the knees.  Furthermore, dresses of transparent material are improper.

If you visit Rome, you’ll see many signs outside churches indicating that visitors should not have bare arms or legs – I presume because those 1928 Guidelines are still in force. That is creating its own subculture, “Please show respect on our terms, not yours.” Perhaps it’s not a subculture for native Romans – I wouldn’t know, I’m not a Roman. But in the Eternal City thronged by tourists and pilgrims from around the world, there will be many more visitors who don’t share the same subculture of modesty than those who do. Is this a positive or negative thing? Does it say “Please adopt our subculture to acknowledge that this church is a set-apart place?” Or for those less discerning of what is going on, does it say: “This is a Christian site. It is run for prudes, by prudes”?

I won’t summarise the rest of Lewis’s two chapters here; it is a good broad summary of Christian teaching on chastity and marriage, with no paricular angle I wish to comment on. I will merely offer you two short observations which Lewis makes:

(1) Society has normalised casual sex and deemed it ‘healthy’. But our sexual instinct is no different in kind from those other instincts which we are called to check – no-one suggests we should give free rein to our other base instincts.

(2) We need not be deterred by the loftiness of the goal of perfect chastity. God may start by giving us the grace to rise after each fall, rather than the perfect gift. Nevertheless, the fact something is difficult doesn’t disqualify it from being a required moral goal.

PS Many websites conflate the ‘Vatican guidelines’ with other documents touching on modesty published by the Congregation for the Council (AAS 1930, v.22 pp.26-28) and a letter referred to in that AAS text from the Congregation for Religious (NOT itself published in AAS but Italian source cited and translated into English on a forum). Different websites give different claims for the “two inches” guidelines but the one who seems to have done most source research indicates the detailed instructions on modesty of dress for women were issued on September 24, 1928 by Basilio Cardinal Pompilj, the Cardinal responsible for the running of the Diocese of Rome on behalf of Pope Pius XI.

How to Pray?

How should I pray?

The disciples didn’t know how to pray – they asked Jesus to teach them, and were given the Lord’s Prayer. The Catechism acknowledges that we still don’t know how to pray, and St Augustine wrote a Letter to Proba on that subject, too.

I’ve blogged previously about what my prayer life is like. Some people clearly experience prayer as a conversation with God – even if God isn’t saying very much. In general, my prayer life is a one-sided transmission, interspersed by the very rare “oh, where did that thought come from?” which I have learned to recognise as a nudge from God.

Many people live inside noisy heads plagued with doubts about their goodness and acceptability to God. I’m sure they find it helpful to make regular “acts of faith” or declarations of who they are in Christ in order to combat this destructive noise.

But I’m not those people. This is about MY personal relationship with God, so it must be coloured by the way I connect with God.

At the same time, it must be led by the Lord so rooted in general and personal revelation.

In general, because I live out of my head without emotional distractions, I don’t need to make repeated acts of faith and “overcoming” doubts. But I do recognise that spiritual warfare is like hand-washing, a hygiene routine needed daily. Even if I could live perfectly, the acts of others would still open new spiritual wounds allowing evil spirits fresh permission to influence my life and my projects.

I have my own daily needs. There are people and projects I ought to pray for because they are under my responsibility. And of course, many people specifically ask me to pray for them.

There are many books suggesting ways to pray. American Linda Schubert’s Miracle Hour format is very popular, and English mystic Elizabeth Wang has some very simple and comforting advice on “How to pray.”

How, then, should I pray?

The Lord’s Prayer is the Lord’s teaching on how to pray so should shape all my prayer, at least as a framework. What’s below is simply a template, to remind myself of the different things I could and should do when I enter into a time of prayer. If it helps you, feel free to use it too.

  • WORSHIP – enter God’s presence and Honour Him
    • Declare truth – e.g. Creed
    • Sing
    • Tongues
  • God’s WILL – “What do you want me to do today?”
    • Renew my surrender to Jesus as Lord
    • Chat to God about what’s on my mind
    • Grace for today’s projects – ask Gifts of the Holy Spirit
    • Time to listen – read Scripture, Meditation
  • My NEEDS
    • Call on Holy Spirit
  • The NEEDS of others (be SPECIFIC)
    • Family
    • Close friends
    • Godchildren
    • Assignments
    • Prayer requests
  • REPENT of my sins
    • Speak out the breaking of spiritual bonds
  • FORGIVE others and break spiritual bonds
    • Speak out the breaking of spiritual bonds
  • PROTECTION
    • Offer up sufferings
    • Holy Michael / Guardian Angel
  • WORSHIP
    • Thanksgiving
  • ENTRUSTMENT TO MARY
  • SAINTS of the day