“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.
Following my posts from this morning, here are my favorite albums from this year. Here’s a playlist.
ALBUMS: “Afraid of the cops when I was outside, afraid of my friends when I was inside”
Camp Cope, Camp Cope. Georgia Maq’s shame and desire and excruciating self-consciousness are painfully bright— you have to squint— and our witnessing of it would all be for nothing if the space of liberation her songs long for weren’t blasted out by the big jarring drums and melodic counterpoint of the bass and that jangly basic guitar. Makes me think of Defiance OH or Your Heart Breaks: the way good music creates in moments the better world it desires.
Car Seat Headrest, Teens of Denial. Not shame and desire on this one, but depression and falling-inward; a self-consciousness not excruciating but ironic, curious, and ultimately sort of redemptive. Will Toledo’s music is sad shit, but it’s never sluggish or stark. Teens of Denial attests to a rich imagination for arrangement: it’s rowdy and dynamic, decorated by horns and answering voices and a complex sense of construction (yes, you’ll listen to all eleven minutes of “The Ballad of the Costa Concordia” without your mind wandering). You make music like this because you survive, and maybe part of the reason you survive is your musical imagination is your friend, or it represents the sustaining power of some buried self-belief and resistance under the sinking weight of your own biochemical hopelessness, or it’s a taunt that stirs some despondency in you into raging loud life.
Chance the Rapper, Coloring Book. Exuberance and hope. Faith and a little licking flame of anger. A gymnastic verbal gift. Open-heartedness and a sense of collective grief rather than a personal chip on the shoulder. “Giving Satan a swirlie.”
Dr. Yen Lo, Days with Dr. Yen Lo. Modern life is war: Ka is part of a long hip-hop tradition (Genius, Rakim, the Poor Righteous Teachers) of solitary mystics cultivating secret learning and esoteric insight to actively resist, not elude, systemic oppression: “slave body, master mind.” Ka the drumless rapper: an FDNY fire captain by day deprogramming his listeners into mind-freedom out in Brownsville by night: murmuring on this record (a collaboration with producer Preservation) over cutups from The Manchurian Candidate like the last unbrainwashed POW. If you want his album, he’ll mail it to you himself, but be cool because he doesn’t make it to the post office every day.
Grimes, Artangels. Claire Boucher’s songs are political but they aren’t built to rally around: her personae are solitary in their feminist rage, anti-capitalist dread, and declarations of freaky independence. But, as on Lemonade, you speak your truth right and other people hear themselves in your words and live bigger lives because of you. I could never get the hang of Grimes before, but here Boucher’s elastic sugar-high voice and the production– calling back with its breakbeats and bright guitars to Ray of Light and other late-90s “progressive” pop– makes me feel fifteen again.
Kevin Gates, Islah. In rap as in rock, plenty of smart people become stars by figuring out how to make enlarged retweetable cartoons of themselves, but Kevin Gates is Kevin Gates: an unapologetically complete and contradictory character, dangerous and tender, rough and sensuous, pitiless and lonely, supremely confident in the broadness of his talent. On Islah (named for his daughter), every, I mean every, song has hooked my ears; some unsettle me, others move me, and many stick in me as aphorisms I’ll be repeating until I hear another rap album this good.
Fatou Seidi Ghali & Alamnou Akrouni, Les Filles de Illighadad. Some of the Portland label Sahel Sounds’ collections of northwest African field recordings succumb to folkloricism: music whose interest is mostly that it’s “an enriching example of the diversity of” your topic, the best players you’d find in any dusty small-town courtyard presented in a geographic sweep. But these two Tuaregs, a guitar player and singer joined by drummers on the long single B-side track, make intricate and hypnotic music that keeps compelling my ears, played casually and recorded intimately.
Carly Rae Jepsen, EMOTION and EMOTION Side B. Seems like she’s turning her energy toward having fun with her (huge) cult instead of trying to compete with Taylor, Katy, etc., which I think is just fantastic. Hip critics called Emotion overly professional, but at a certain level you’ve got to trust that Jepsen’s hyper-developed sense of craft is one expression of artistic personality, not a concealment she needs to grow out of. Likewise her very particular taste in collaborators (turning down multiple songs from Max Martin to work with Devonte Hynes and Ariel Rechtshaid). Her B-sides album is more idiosyncratic and giddily expert bangers: just what she wanted, and I bet a few million fans, too.
Kelela, Hallucinogen EP. The blue-robot cover of this EP is the least human thing about it: my pleasure of replaying Hallucinogen is in the contrasts, the heat of Kelela’s hunger, regret, power, and dread over cool and spacious electronics, the wingbeat of her voice over the digital pulse and skitter. I bet the next record will be better– Kelela was first celebrated for her sound when she was still a maturing artist– but this EP is already a sign of sharpening artistic vision: the songs all sound like her, whether she’s got five collaborators or fifteen.
KING, We are KING. Natalie and I got to see Amber and Paris Strother and Anita Bass on their second pass this year through Seattle, and seeing KING live helped me untangle the production on their debut. Through my laptop speakers, I thought it was pretty but a little gauzy and samey; with it booming in my face, I could separate out the doubled voices, feel the edges of the big washes of old-fashioned synthesizer, and let the fuller-bodied bass rumble my body. Afterward I came back to the record with more open ears, loving the drama of KING’s sense of melody, letting the lyrics’ assurance and tenderness contribute to atmosphere rather than needing them to tell me a story.
Chris Knox, Seizure reissue. This is what it takes to be the godfather of a scene: a spiritual generosity that springs out of your own generative fluency— if I can do this, why don’t you give it a try?—; a real committed child-like eccentricity and an affinity for Beatles-y melodies; a cassette machine. Knox had been pouring his heart into New Zealand indie music for a decade when he released this solo album in ’89, playing everywhere, engineering everyone who needed it, and distributing his friends. I first met most of these songs thirteen years ago, when Cait played me Knox’s anthology Meat (comprising a weirdly partial selection of this record, its followup Croaker, and a few other tunes). I met them again on Stroke, the tribute assembled by his countless admirers, friends, and mentees in and out of New Zealand to pay his medical bills after he lost his speech and much of his mobility in a grand mal seizure five years ago. In that time, my love for them hasn’t faded in the slightest. I’ve never heard a song about sexism like “The Woman inside of Me”; “The Face of Fashion” and “Not Given Lightly” are love songs, real heart-widening miracles; when you tune your ears to their timbres, you’ll whistle along with “Wanna!!”
Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith, EARS. The sense of a huge damp respirating landscape, mossy stone and fir trees and water bluer than the sky, synthesizers creating an effect that feels pre-human: music whose rhythms reflect not an arc of bodily ecstasy but the minute motions of creeping roots and dripping rain. As far as I’m concerned, she’s the pride of Orcas Island.
Speedy Ortiz, Foil Deer. It’s not always good news when poets are lyricists, but Sadie Dupuis’s arch, bitter, self-delighted, and swiftly-moving lyrics are a real joy, and her band’s music is awkward in a way I love, all jabbing elbows and tangled feet. I’ve always said I’m just not a child of 90s indie rock– Archers of Loaf are never gonna move me like the Replacements– but Speedy Ortiz makes me love that era’s mixture of spasmodic whiz-bang energy and delighted irony enough to make me wonder. Maybe I’m wrong!
A Tribe Called Quest, We Got It from Here… Thanks 4 the Service. I was a teenager when my body was swept up by the sound of Low End Theory and an aspiring cool kid when I found Beats, Rhymes & Life and I loved them both and never expected I’d hear another, let alone one even more musically various, politically exact, lyrically virtuosic, whatever other overjoyed adverb-adjective pairs you wanna throw at this astounding thing.
Kanye West, The Life of Pablo. I tried to hate this one and I just completely failed. Coming back to it on a car trip with my brother on a sad fucking day, I finally heard how each unpredictable production choice and every obnoxious or grace-starved lyric and off-the-wall musical element lean on each other and I put my head down on the glove compartment and surrendered to loving it. The Life of Pablo is full of loose ends and unfinished threads, but what unites it is a sense of shame and redemption: it’s religious as nothing he’s done since “Jesus Walks.” And throughout Pablo, there’s that unique genius of West’s, those reckless ingenious acts of musical balancing: cramming samples into “No More Parties in LA” until the song bursts like a torn quilt; tucking Sister Nancy’s “Bam Bam” into the last third of “Famous.”
Rough Guide to African Rare Groove, Vol. 1. A serious damn party record: in less than an hour it hunts everywhere for pleasure, from buzzy solid-state Ethiopian funk to Tanzanian open-air dance music and a Malawian one that sounds like calypso with a drum machine, wrapping it all up with a Celestine Ukwu song that dissolves in soothing guitar and saxophone prettiness (the comedown tune?) and a really busted kooky Francis Bebey song (that’s him pictured) for your 4 a.m. seizures of inspiration.
Imaginational Anthem Vol. 8: the Private Press. This label, which specializes in rare guitar music, here does itself one better and shares an hour-plus of rarer-than-rare guitar music: Imaginational Anthem Vol. 8 consists of selections from three decades of privately printed LPs and 45s, by artists I’ve never remotely heard of: a world of one-offs, flashes of brilliance, prayers and musical tangents. My favorites are the stuff in the British-Isles line, but there are Delta- and Latin-inspired tunes, dabs of psychedelia and jazz, multi-tracked cascades; anything you could want, annotated with fondness and curiosity (“according to YouTube…”). A treasure.
Urgent Jumping: East African Musiki Wa Dansi Classics. From Stern’s, an East African dance music anthology that’s a little too overstuffed and (as above) folkloric/collector-y to really knock me out start to finish (as say African Pearls: Pont Sur le Congo or Golden Afrique Vol. 1 have): “twice as good if it were half as long,” as they say. But it’d be churlish of me to complain against the variety— benga, rumba, lilting Arabic-mode Zanzibarian tunes, and fuzzy soul alongside the sublime liftoff of the soukous tunes I’ll always like best. Favorites include L’Orchestre Grand Pisa’s “Oboti Kolisa,” L’Orch. Moja One’s “Dania ni Duara Pts. 1 & 2,” and Victoria Jazz Band’s “Anyanga.”