Up now at Poetry Northwest!
“God is universal, faceless, nameless, and with no allegiance to anything other than love. A ‘Christian Nation’ is absolutely heretical. Christ did not come into this world to be a modifier.”
Reflecting on a responsibility to myself I’ve failed to fully keep: living my full self candidly in all my communities.
Part of my reverence for Catholicism, my embrace of it as a worldview, has to do with the deep importance of the body in Catholic faith life. The standing and kneeling. The dousing with holy water and the heavy earthy reek of real frankincense and the real flowers wilting and the real bloody sweetness of the wine. The weak and emaciated body on the cross instructing us in God’s willing embrace and redemption of all that’s bodily: our physical infirmity, our historical contingency, our subjection to arrogant power, our radical weakness, our possibility of freely-chosen solidarity and our passage into death: death the darkest shadow of all those cast by this beautiful and bleeding creation, the shadow twinning all its light, and God passing through it. I revere communion as a foretaste of our unity, body and soul, with God. We know God in our bodies: our bodies are not a shell or a sinker dragging our featherweight spirits into temptation: they’re braided up with our souls.
This is important because, in my experience of sexuality as well as of spiritual ecstasy, I feel brought close to the edge of my finitude. Karl Rahner said once that humans are incomplete beings oriented toward completeness. In spirituality as in sexuality, I feel a deep intimation of a unity that I as an incomplete being won’t definitively achieve in life but I can sense, unbearably close, overpowering and out of reach.
I feel all this wisdom in Catholicism, so deeply that it breaks my heart how deeply dehumanizing church teachings are on queer sexuality (especially queer sexuality, I should say) and women’s reproductive freedom.
Friends who I love– friends who are radically open to God, friends doing the work on Earth I’d call kingdom-building, friends in touch with a profound awe at the mystery of our existence– can’t find a home in my faith community. Who could blame them, when Church teaching calls queer sexuality “intrinsically disordered” and Francis compares the spectrum theory of gender to nuclear weapons for how both harm “the order of creation“? My parish is blessed to be home to an open, affirming, and progressive community; our families look many different ways; our parishioners and pastors were deeply involved with the “Catholics for Marriage Equality” campaign; but the weight of the Church’s own teachings hangs over all of us and our work.
And I, for my part, have made my home in my parish while hedging on a deep part of myself: I’m a queer person in a loving partnership with a woman. I’m queer in my range of attractions, queer in my romance, queer in my relationship’s experience of and agreements around intimacy– a queer person who passes, often willingly, as straight in much of my faith community (plenty of other spaces too). I’ve passed by choice and habit and a deeply internalized fear of exposure: an invisible fear, a matter of adjusting my habits and managing others’ expectations, rather than fleeing or explicitly denying anything.
The consolations of this act of passing– fitting in and tending to others’ expectations– are bogus. Can I pretend my heart is hidden from God? (Thinking of Luke 12:3.) This choosing to pass is also a failure of responsibility to friends who can’t choose to pass: I let them stay other in the eyes of my faith community, even of prospective allies in my faith community. This consolation also can’t compare to the joy I feel when I truly acknowledge and welcome my whole extravagantly sissy, tender, outrageous self. There’s a simplicity in this acknowledgement that I’m taking a deep breath and embracing. I believe doing this will bring me more harmony with the embodied qualities of Catholic faith I love, and more courage in speaking up against the aspects of the Catholic understanding of the body that I resist.
Speaking of which, I’m feeling more and more acutely the cost of being a man in an institution as foundationally sexist as the church. The Catholic church is the church of Mary, Ruth, Miriam, Julian of Norwich, St. Theresa, Flannery O’Connor, Sr. Mary Antona Ebo, Teresa Forcades i Vila OSB, Dorothy Day, Mairead Maguire, Milet Mendoza, Eleanor Josaitis, Sr. Helen Prejean: women on fire with the Spirit. But the Church’s name and might has also been, again and again, a means of controlling women throughout history, relegating them to a smaller humanity than men. The Church’s denial of the priesthood to women is offensive. It’s one of the distortions– like Augustine’s justification of forced conversions from, of all things, Christ’s parable of the great banquet– that come from rationalizing the arrangements of power in the societies where the Church had been invited to share that power.
The practice of church doctrines on sexual responsibility are, I believe, one aspect of this diminishment and devaluation of the female. Instantiated in everything from the Church’s extensive charitable work to its Sunday school, this doctrine falls punitively (and almost exclusively) on women, on the female body as a site of male power and control. For repeating the sin of Eve, a woman’s atonement will be acceptance of a child she may have no means to care for and no support in raising. In my stinging conscience, I’m aware of how my comfort as a man in a male-dominated institution has sometimes dulled my resolve to speak out about sexuality, female empowerment, and abortion to my Catholic spiritual siblings, and my resolve to show visible solidarity with others who do so.
I love Catholicism for the age and weathered grandeur and extravagant patchiness of its cultural and ecclesial life. It reflects many societies, many ways of knowing. The Church’s very human overelaboration– of ritual, artifice, decoration– doesn’t match the grandeur of God. But this overelaboration is, to me, a more beautiful sort of failed attempt than that of the hard-pew, bare-cross Presbyterianism I was raised in. I feel I belong in the Church. I write candidly about sexuality and institutional sexism here not out of a fantasy of reshaping the church to suit my experience, but because it feels poisonous to belie my conscience by omission. “He who acts against his conscience always does moral evil.” My resolution is to risk discomfort more in search of truer harmony and joy, and to give more labor and solidarity to those doing kingdom work in the church itself.
Thanks to A and G who urged me to find the courage to speak all this. Thanks to J for shining a light for me on women leaders, lay and religious, in the church.
Here’s the reflection I gave at St. Mary’s on New Year’s Day for the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God.
In the course of my week, I feel closest to worship between about 5:30 and 7 in the morning. When I can get myself out of bed for it, this is my quiet time—the time before I wake Finn up and start the process of getting him to preschool and myself to work. I spend that quiet hour and a half at my desk with a cup of coffee, a little lamp, three prayer candles, and a glow-in-the-dark statue of Mary that my friend Alex gave me when we were both baptized.
With the candles lit, I offer my prayers and fears and hopes and longings for the day or the week, read a Psalm, sometimes write a poem, sometimes reflect in my journal on a sentence or two from the gospel. Then I wake Finn up, and my day starts. I like to believe that the fruits of this silent time are everywhere in the rest of my day: I notice that I’m less crabby, neurotic, and exhausted by dinnertime if I’ve taken the silence of the morning to draw myself closer to God and just quiet down.
Mary’s power and receptivity, her prophetic gift and the holy dignity she brings to our human body, are at the heart of my understanding of my faith. I’m obsessed by the Magnificat, her prophecy at the beginning of Luke; I’ve been trying to memorize it line by line on my morning commute, and I’m about halfway through. The fire and timeless beauty of those words burn my heart.
But in today’s gospel, I’m drawn not to Mary’s words, but to her silence. “Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart.” What is it, I wonder, that Mary is keeping in her heart? We hear that all who heard the shepherds were amazed: I can only believe that Mary, too, was dumbfounded at the confirmation of the visit of the angel, at the suggestion that this tiny, quiet person swaddled in her lap would make real her own prophecy. This silence of her reflection continues long after the astounded shepherds go back to their flocks. How can we know what sort of thoughts must be turning over in her? How can any of us fathom the impossible gift of Christ to the world?
Today in Numbers, we heard the blessing: “The LORD let his face shine upon you, and be gracious to you.” This blessing, it seems to me, is precisely what Mary assented to: the Lord shone upon her, in her “yes” to the angel, in taking on the bodily work of carrying the child of the Holy Spirit, in accepting a love and trust that will ultimately pierce her like a sword. And here it is, unbelievably, coming to pass nine months later.
In the Magnificat in the first chapter of Luke, Mary, pregnant with Jesus, instructs me with her prophecy of a world turned upside down—of God’s timeless fidelity and burning justice and disruption of all established hierarchies. But here in the second chapter of Luke, Mary, holding her astounding baby in her arms, instructs me not with her prophecy, but with her silence.
2016 was a devastating and heartbreaking year for me, and for many of us. As I enter 2017, I’m tending to my own grief. I’m looking for ways to make real the prophecy of the Magnificat—in serving the poor, in empowering those subject to state violence, in standing up for immigrants, in welcoming people persecuted for their faiths.
But in this first week of the year, I hope to also tend to my own silence. This silence can be my strength when I’m hopeless, and my rest when I’m overwhelmed. We live in a culture that values individual productivity, output, measureable results. So it’s easy for me to lose heart when I see the persistence of injustice and suffering and arrogant power. Is our work worth it, if we’re unable to cure the world of these things? But in silence, I feel the refreshment of knowing that it is God who is at work in our labor for justice, and God who completes what is out of our hands to complete. I hold Mary’s example in my heart as I keep time for awe and longing and gratitude for life, for the Spirit’s presence in both hardship and joy, for wondering—as I’m sure Mary must have wondered, on the first night of her son’s life—what this magnificent news of his birth could possibly mean.