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.

 

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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

A Touchy Subject

Last time, I pondered the question of why people don’t do things when it comes to food. This time, I’m asking the same question concerning touch.

A while back, I was walking alongside my pre-teen godson in a pilgrimage. We have a close and loving relationship, and I rested my hand on his shoulder. But his Mum wasn’t happy. “Only a Dad should touch a boy like that – you don’t see other godfathers doing that, do you?” She was also concerned that onlookers might misread the situation and assume I was a child abuser.

Once again, I have failed to make a study of typical human behaviour – in this case how godfathers normally show affection. And once again, even if I had noticed the absence of such behaviour, I wouldn’t have known the reasons why they don’t do it.

Indeed, in general, I don’t have a good sense of how really close friends behave when they are together in private – I don’t get to go to that many family parties. There are plenty of books guiding Aspies who want a sexual relationship, but none on how to navigate close yet chaste relationships when you are celibate. For instance, when you are a house-guest with a family, should you offer the hostess a kiss on the cheek when you retire to go to bed? There are clearly circumstances when you shouldn’t – if she’s asked you not to, or you know it would make her husband jealous. But is it the kind of thing people don’t do in general? I haven’t been a house guest alongside enough different guests to know! It’s just one small example of the difficulty of not reading the emotional melodies in a life which is occasionally ambushed by affection.

Another thing a close friend asked me not to do is to look into her eyes for too long. I’ve written previously about how I can’t read the emotions in other people’s eyes, but there’s also some good scientific research establishing that gazing into one another’s eyes promotes a sense of bonding – and even gazing into a pet’s eyes produces the “bonding hormone” oxytocin. As a celibate seeking to avoid, and avoid provoking, falling-in-love there’s one clear conclusion – don’t look for too long!

Food for Thought

I’ve not been blogging for a while due to a series of minor infections – when you’re not running on 100% capacity as a priest you have to prioritise the basics – and it may be a while before I’m posting regularly, but this thought came along.

Why is it that other people don’t do certain things?

Recently, I asked one of my trusted friends for perspective, because I had to fill our a self-assessment form which asked about my social weaknesses. “When you eat soup in company,” she said, “don’t dunk your bread in it. After all, you don’t see other people doing that, do you?”

I learned two things from this conversation.

First, I don’t tend to notice what it is that other people don’t do. I don’t think I’ve ever paid attention to how other people eat soup.

Second, my friend (and therefore, if she is representative, a fair percentage of humanity) get an icky emotional reaction when they see someone dunking.

Soup has never come up as a subject before, but at seminary, one student challenged me about dunking my toast in my morning coffee. At the time, my response was to always try to sit at a different table from him, so he didn’t have to watch me. But in hindsight, I think the message I was supposed to get was that most people find that icky and would be uncomfortable around me.

It’s in cases like this that we Aspies might be at a multiple disadvantage. First, if I did notice someone dunking in coffee or soup, I wouldn’t have a bad emotional reaction to that. Second, since I’m not good at reading other people’s emotions, I am unlikely to notice that someone else is uncomfortable about the way that I am eating. Third, since I don’t naturally seek out other people’s behaviour patterns as examples of what to do, or avoid doing, I’m not going to have a sense that most people don’t do that. And fourth, if no one tells you that most people do react badly, then even if you do notice that no-one else is dunking, you wouldn’t know why. Maybe most people simply don’t like to dunk.

My friend also pointed out that not eating part of a meal prepared for you shows disrespect for the time and effort that the person went into making it for you. This is a good example of the different assumptions that Aspies and typical human beings might make when it comes to preparing a meal… and it all depends on the Golden Metarule which I mentioned this time last year.

The Aspie Way

  1. People might have allergies or simply not like particular food. I don’t want to have to eat food I don’t like so why should I put anyone else in that position?
  2. I want my guests to enjoy their meal.
  3. I ask my guests what they do and don’t like to eat.
  4. I make sure that I prepare food that my guests like.
  5. If something goes wrong with my cooking, I want my guests to tell me so that I can avoid making the same mistake next time. How else could I be sure to prepare something they will really like?

The Typical Human Way

  1. Most people like the adventure of trying something new or unexpected.
  2. The host puts a lot of effort into giving the guests a surprise.
  3. The guests show they appreciate the effort by eating all the food, smiling, whatever they really think of it.
  4. They all say “Thank you for a lovely meal.”

Postscript…

I was recently at a bread-and-soup lunch for Christian leaders. For the first time in my life – and I’m now in my 40s – I paid attention to how other people eat. The bread was in the form of sliced baguettes. Of the six others on my table, four put dry bread in their mouths. Two took small pieces of baguette crust and dipped them in the soup.

It was fascinating, paying attention to this and noticing what other people do. A reminder that my way of being an Aspie includes no desire to conform to other people’s actual patterns of behaviour, no instinct to monitor that behaviour, and no awareness of non-verbal signs of fellow diners are reacting to my behaviour.

Mere Anthropology

Today I’m beginning a new series of blog posts, in pursuit of the aim of writing “Typical Humans 101“. Various friends have pointed me towards C. S. Lewis’s classic Mere Christianity(a book adapted from scripts for broadcast on BBC Radio) and the more recent series of books by the Jesuit Robert Spitzer beginning with Finding True HappinessLewis’s purpose was to document those things common to Christians from different denominations; Spitzer’s is to treat of humanity’s quest for transcendent happiness. But both authors say enough about the human condition that, with an eye to knowing something of the quirks of the autistic mind, I can pick out those facts which would seem unremarkable to typical humans but deeply insightful to many Aspies.

Lewis’s opening chapters take me to a subject I’ve already considered on this blog – to what extent all human beings have the same inner experience of ‘the voice of conscience’. Lewis is not a psychologist, but as a respected author will have been chosen for broadcast and publication because he captures an understanding which will resonate with many members of his audience; a writer like Lewis rises to prominence because of his good grasp of what’s generally true about human nature.

Lewis’s way in to this subject (MC15-19) is that humans often quarrel about whether a course of action is fair. Even persons or nations who don’t keep their promises are likely to appeal to “fair play” on a regular basis. Such a dispute implies that there is a common standard of morality accessible to all parties. “This Law or Rule about Right and Wrong used to be called the Law of Nature… they really meant the Law of Human Nature… because people thought that every one knew it by nature and did not need to be taught it.” At least, most humans know it, but some may not, in the same way in which some are tone-deaf or colour-blind. Surface details may differ across cultures, but it would be difficult to imagine a culture which praised cowardice in battle or treachery to one’s friends. When we are accused of bad behaviour, we come up with all sorts of excuses – which is itself a sign that we intuitively know we have fallen short of some standard of fairness.  (Lewis also suggests reading the Appendix of Abolition of Man to continue this exploration.)

Following his original radio broadcast, Lewis received letters from  correspondents who found it hard to identify with this “Law of Human Nature, or Moral Law, or Rule of Decent Behaviour”. (MC 20-25) I suspect some such letters, from articulate critics, would have been from writers on the autistic spectrum.

Lewis also deals with the criticism that humans have a “herd instinct”. He acknowledges this may well be true but posits that there is a mental faculty distinct from instinct. We have instincts to eat food, drink water and pursue sex. When we hear a cry from someone in danger, it may stir in us contrary instincts to help and to flee – but there is a qualitatively different something within us which chooses which instinct to follow. This something often directs us to follow the weaker of the two impulses we sense. There is no broad category of human instinct which we must always follow in all circumstances, nor one which we must always suppress.

Inanimate objects are what they are, without choice. Human beings have the capacity of choosing their course of action. It is because we have a sense of what a person “ought” to do we can compare their actual deeds to what they “ought” to have done. We can distinguish this sense of “ought” from what we find convenient for ourselves. We might make use of a traitor, in our national interest, while despising him. (MC25-29)

Lewis notes that an external observer could discern a person’s actions but not their motives. From our own personal experience of being human,  we don’t always do what we know we ought; therefore, by studying human behaviour externally, we can’t establish the “oughts” which are being sometimes heeded and sometimes spurned in the mind of the person acting. (MC31) (Things have advanced since Lewis’s day. Current scientific knowledge of the neural mechanisms of morality are in their infancy; it is not unthinkable, however, that brain-scanning technology might one day be able to identify the presence of particular “oughts”.)

Overall, therefore, Lewis is arguing that there is a universal sense of fair play because all human beings have access to the same objective sense of The Good. If we generally agree that certain human societies are “more moral” than others (taking Nazi Germany as an example of low morals), does that not bear witness to our shared intuitive sense of what a moral society should look like?

Lewis allows that we may learn the Law of Human Nature by education, but argues that is not proof of its lack of objectivity, any more than learning a multiplication table invalidates the fundamental truth that 9 x 6 = 54 and always will be. He will go on to use the existence of The Good as a starting point for exploring the nature of God.

It seems to me that Lewis provides a well-written description of the Law of Human Nature which demystifies it for those of us who don’t experience it in our inner lives – as it is clear that some of the correspondents who contacted Lewis after the broadcast did not. This leaves us with a big question: does Moral Goodness have the same kind of objective reality as Mathematical Truth? That will be the subject of my next post.

* For Mere Christianity, I am using the 1971 19th impression of the Collins Fontana edition first produced in 1955; page numbers will be cited with MC using this edition.

The Slumbering Spirit

Rarely, I come across a book which makes my spirit sing. The author has looked into the Bible and found meanings in Scripture which make sense on paper, and have a deep ring of truth about them, but are not obvious to me before I read them.  One such book is Healing the Wounded Spirit by John and Paula Sandford.

One chapter in this book (and expanded in Waking the Slumbering Spirit) talks about what they call the “slumbering spirit”. The idea is that our innermost souls, made in God’s image, are meant to love and to be loved. When they fail to receive affection in childhood, they fall asleep and become emotionally unresponsive. The soul also begins resenting parents for failing to communicate that love.

When I first read about this, I took it to my confessor. Although I had no conscious awareness of resentment regarding my parents, who were caring but undemonstrative, I repented by faith of any unfelt anger in my soul. When I left confession that day I felt like a great weight had been lifted, and that I had a spring in my step – the only time I have ever felt this after confession.

There are a lot of parallels between Aspie traits and the Sandfords’ description of the slumbering spirit. I wonder if they are in fact describing from a spiritual point of view what a psychologist would call high-functioning autism?

They also talk a lot in their books about Performance Orientation, and how so many Christians are crippled by believing they need to earn God’s love. Personally, I don’t draw my identity from success – but it is one of this things that makes me happy. Alas, it is rare that the daily work of a priest includes talking with a person whose faith has recently deepened, who has received a sense of God’s blessing, or wants to make a genuine commitment to my parish. Success in ministry is a rare currency indeed!

The best thing that ever happens? Hearing the confession of someone who – probably through no good deed of mine – comes to confession after 20, 30, or 40 years away from the life of the Church. I only hear such a confession every couple of years, but I need to jump for joy, literally, as soon as I am out of the confessional!

Say it With Flowers

Kate, a close friend since my undergraduate days, is one of the people I have taken into my confidence about my diagnosis.

Once, I stayed with Kate and her family for a week while attending a conference near her home. During that time I shared about how my Asperger’s is a form of ’emotional deafness’. I think she understands.

At the end of the week, I gave Kate a bunch of flowers to thank her for letting me stay. She was most effusive about the gift and gushed for a few minutes about how lovely they were. Now, I couldn’t tell whether her gushing was because I had bought just the right sort of flowers that she really adored, or whether she was emphasising her gratitude to get past my emotional deafness.

In the past, my main concern would have been whether they were the kind of flowers she really liked; if I can’t tell whether the gushing is genuine, how can I know whether to get the right kind of flowers next time?

But suddenly, I realised that the point of the flowers wasn’t the flowers but the message they conveyed.

If I had chosen well, and the gushing was 100% genuine, this was a big win.

But if Kate was gushing for my sake, it was intended to communicate that she was really appreciative of the gesture. In this case, I had at least succeeded in communicating gratitude, and she in returning appreciation. This is also a win!

As I write these words, I am reminded of several occasions in the past when I have plainly displayed my disappointment that a gift hadn’t been what I had wanted. I had always assumed the business of gift-giving was about identifying what the other person really liked and giving appropriately. But am I wrong? Is it about communicating affection through the intent to give?

I also sent another friend flowers after spending time with her family. The message back was “Thank you – no need, but thank you.” I think that counts as another win!

X + Y

Have you seen the movie “x + y”? It’s a drama based on the life of International Maths Olympiad competitor Daniel Lightman, who was diagnosed with Asperger’s aged 16. The movie’s main character, Nathan Ellis, is mainly but not wholly a reflection of Daniel, who also acted as a consultant to help keep the portrayal true to autistic traits.

A key part of the plot stood out for me – here are necessarily spoilers, so be warned!

The plot shows how Nathan deals with touch. Repeatedly we are shown how his mother wants to touch him, especially in moments of high emotion, but Nathan draws back. His mother needs closeness for her comfort; Nathan needs space for his. But in the course of the movie, Nathan enters a relationship with a girl who has strong feelings for him; he overcomes his aversion to touch when they kiss. Shortly afterwards an emotional dam bursts and he is able to weep for his late father, recognising for the first time that the tender memories he has of his Dad are a sign of what love is; he is finally able to accept his mother’s embrace as she comforts him.

I can recognise the time in my life, up to age 19, when I basically didn’t want to be touched. I had various elderly aunties who expected to be greeted with a kiss, sometimes on the lips, and I always found that to be most uncomfortable. I understood that Mum expected a kiss on certain occasions, but when I gave her one it would be perfunctory.

Then a girl kissed me. Not a snog – I have never snogged anyone in my life! – but a simple thank-you kiss on my forehead for doing her a good turn. And over the next few days, a dormant part of my psyche awoke. I realised I was living in a  world of touching, feeling, human beings but missing out! No-one who was a friend rather than an auntie has kissed me before. This was amazing!

There followed a rather embarrassing period in my life when I tried to kiss lots of my female friends without understanding when and how this might be acceptable. On the plus side, Mum got the first sincere kiss of her life from me when I got home from University at the next vacation!

Over more recent years, I have noticed friends and parishioners becoming more likely to touch me. I don’t know how much that is to do with my body language changing, and how much is the maturity of the people I am mixing with. But this is also a bittersweet truth. Now that it is not so rare for someone to touch me, touch seems to have lost much of its emotional power. So was it the touch itself, or the novelty of being touched, which once provoked an emotional reaction in me?

 

Didn’t you get the Memo?

One of the most frustrating things in my life as a priest is taking part as a visitor in large Masses without a Master of Ceremonies. If an MC tells us where to process, bow and genuflect then the whole ceremony can be carried out with dignity. Without an MC it depends on priests having a shared knowledge of the liturgical rules and a respect for the dignity of the liturgy.

Few priests seem to realise than in the revised Roman Missal, in the absence of a deacon, a concelebrating priest should speak the invitation to the sign of peace and the dismissal. Of course, when I am the second and only other priest present with a principal celebrant, I never initiate this, because I can almost guarantee you he won’t expect it. (I have only once since 2011 had a presiding priest point at the relevant texts and expect me to say them!)

If I am the principal, without the assistance of a deacon, then in theory I am supposed to elevate the chalice myself. But to the concelebrant standing next to me, this will seem a rude and selfish gesture unless he has read the new rules and knows he is not meant to assist with the chalice at that moment.

For a principled Aspie, this is a terrible dilemma. I have made a promise to celebrate the liturgy according to the rules (liturgical law is an extension of canon law). But if I follow them I will sow discord. At least in this case there is a principle, which the Church has thoughtfully put in writing (GIRM 95 and 96), that you go with what makes for a harmonious display of unity even when that’s against the letter of the law. The rules apply more directly to being a member of the congregation (so if the majority stand when they should kneel, you should too, rather than implicitly rebuking your fellow worshippers by kneeling anyway).

As for processions, it’s rare that a group of more than a handful of priests will intuit the same ideas about where they should bow and genuflect on a given sanctuary. Hence the need for an MC.

In the Old Testament Book of Judges, we are given the story of Jephthah. In a fit of joy, he makes a rash promise that he will sacrifice to God the first living creatures he spies on his estate when he returns home. But when he is within sight of home his only daughter runs out to greet him – “Daddy, Daddy, you’re home!”

Jephthah faces an impossible choice – sacrifice his daughter or break a solemn vow to God. He decides to be a man of his word, though he allows his daughter some months to ‘bewail her virginity’ before sacrificing her. Here the Bible is clearly warning against rash vows rather than endorsing human sacrifices, but there is also a cautionary tale against forcing believers into vows which could backfire. The New Testament generally advises against the making of oaths (see e.g. James and Matthew).

At least there is some wriggle room in the liturgy to preserve harmony rather than the letter of the law, but I do dream of a day when all the priests at Mass have read the same Memo so we know what to do. The Book of Revelation describes Heaven as a liturgy – perhaps that’s so we priests can finally have a chance to get it right!