Monday, December 23, 2013

A Travel Report from Assisi: Francis, Where Are You?

Assisi was beautiful. The entire time we were there, it was shrouded in thick fog, turning the place magical, as the outlines of shops selling tacky tourist tat were softened, obscured by the mist. In the sheer physical beauty of the place and in its peaceful aura, I experienced St. Francis far more palpably than I did at his shrine, with its busy-ness/business so awkwardly juxtaposed against the legacy of a saint who would, I suspect, have absolutely deplored the way in which he's remembered by the shrine.

Francis's spirit was also alive in a wonderful nun we met at the guesthouse at which we stayed, a woman who has been part of international interreligious dialogues about world peace, who welcomed Steve and me warmly and asked us to keep in touch with her--in contrast to the reception we received when we arrived in Florence.

Our experience in Assisi was like night and day as compared to the experience in Florence I recounted in my last posting. At Assisi as in Florence, we had booked lodging at the guesthouse of a religious community. But in Assisi, when we arrive, the very sweet laywoman showing us to our room asks if we want two separate rooms or a double room, a room with two beds. We tell her we'd intended to book the latter and would be happy to have it, and she shows us to the room right away. Absolutely none of the malarkey we'd encountered in Florence about two men and matrimony, none of the finger-wagging and frowns.

After we've checked into the guesthouse, we walk down to the Piazza del Comune and Minerva's temple, now Santa Maria sopra Minerva, and then on to the cathedral and the basilica of St. Clare. We pray, and then return to the guesthouse, where we step into the bookstore attached to it. As we walk through the door of the bookstore, Steve turns to me and says, "Did you hear that?"

I have, indeed, heard what he'd heard: either a c.d. or the radio playing a kind of speech by a black American hip-hop singer, broadcast over a speaker in the bookstore.* He's saying, "If I was gay, I'd think hip-hop hates me." He then goes on to ask how people who have known historic oppression can turn around and oppress others. He talks about how to be gay is to be treated as always less than, even--or especially--in the black community, where people should know better, given how they themselves have been treated.

He says, "When I was in the church, I learned that sermons that use bible verses to hurl hate at others don't speak words anointed by the Holy Spirit." When I hear these statements, how can I possibly not think of how the nun who received us at the guesthouse in Florence had just treated us--the frowns and finger-wagging--though we had made no announcements that we're a gay couple?

The next day, we go to the basilica of Francis and pray at his tomb. Here's what I wrote in my journal as we processed that experience sitting in a coffee shop across from the church, after we'd visited it:

Francis, your name is again in vogue. It's in people's mouths with a pope who now has your name. Francis, they say, as if they know him. Or you. Francis, we say, as if we know you.

But I'm not at all sure I know even where you are. Not even here in Assisi, where I've just visited your shrine, prayed at your tomb, left a candle there to be lit on the altar before your tomb.

I find it very hard to see you anywhere in that monstrosity of a church, with its busy shrines and side altars. With its business

They've made a business of your memory, Francis. Little poor man of Assisi. Stores full of tacky gewgaws and pilgrim tchotchkes (and, yes, we bought some bookmarks with your picture on them, some eucalyptus lozenges for my sore throat, some scented soaps to bring back as gifts.)

But where are you in all this business, Francis, in the cheap tau crosses and crosses that spoke, in the € 500 gold crosses one can buy if one asks to look in cases under lock and key? Where are you?

Where are you, above all, in the many hard faces that seem to have no joy or welcome (things about which you--and Jesus--spoke much) about them, even as they pray at your shrine? Some of them, the hardest faces of all, the faces of young religious dedicated in a special way to you and Jesus . . . . 

I know. I should be praying, not studying the faces of fellow pilgrims. My own face is, I have no doubt, as closed and censorious as many of those about which I write.

I should be praying for my own conversion, not that of others.

But there's this: the hardness is often--how can I pretend I don't see this?--directed specifically at Steve and me as a couple. As if to say, How dare you come here? How dare you show your face here? How dare you pretend to pray?

How dare you pick up that candle and bring it to be lit at the poverello's shrine?

This is a message we've been given a long time now by many members of our church. It's one we're receiving all over again on this pilgrimage to the institutional homeland of our church. Even at your shrine, though you spoke constantly of embracing, welcoming, celebrating God in everyone around you. And you showed us these gospel values by your actions.

Francis, where are you? In this "new" church of a pope who has your name, whose message is supposed to be about a gospel of joy, about not judging those who are gay . . . ?

I find it hard to see your face in this church, even now. When we went to your shrine today, it was so shrouded by winter mist, we could hardly discern its outlines inside the fog. As a follower of Jesus who happens to have been made gay, I've spent much of my life waiting and watching for the church to emerge from the mists--the church of joy and welcome, not the one of censure and judgment with which many of us have lived so long. 

I'm still not seeing that church emerging from the mists. Francis, where are you?

* My friend Laura has messaged me to tell me the song we heard is Macklemore and Lewis's "Same Love." I've looked up the lyrics of that song, and she's exactly right. We heard only the spoken portion of the lyrics, not the sung parts. I think the singers aren't African-American, so I'm incorrect in what I say on that point above, and in how I interpret their references to oppression in the part of the lyrics I heard.

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