Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Agni Asks If I Go to Church: Another Excerpt from My Letters to the Bishop of Charlotte — Eucharistic Bread and Daily Bread Connected

In a comment here yesterday responding to my posting about the recent uproar in the diocese of Charlotte, North Carolina, Agni asks if I attend a Catholic church in Arkansas. I replied to Agni, trying to condense a lot of information into the brief space of a combox.

It occurs to me now to share an excerpt from the very first letter I wrote to Bishop Curlin. The letter directly addresses the question Agni asked me. I have safeguarded the whole series of letters I sent to Bishop Curlin over the course of four years, pleading with him for a hearing (which he never gave me — he has never met me, never seen my face). The letter from which the following excerpt is taken is dated 21 March 1995. The final letter I sent to Bishop Curlin is dated 4 April 1999, and shares with him my response when I saw photographs of him smiling broadly as he welcomed Justice Antonin Scalia when Scalia came to Charlotte to lecture in March 1999.

I will admit that I've sometimes fantasized about my series of letters to Bishop Curlin as a (potential) little book chronicling the painful, abortive attempt of one tiny gay Catholic who was chewed up and spat out by the institutional church in the 1990s to obtain a hearing from a pastoral authority figure who refused ever to see his face— an attempt that I was to learn in the next decades mirrors the painful, abortive attempts of one survivor of childhood clerical sexual abuse after another to obtain a hearing from the pastors of the church. 

I haven't had the impression, however, that there's much of an audience for that kind of a book. I began to understand how marginal, how unimportant, one tiny gay Catholic or one abuse survivor or one woman who has been chewed up and spat out by the institutional church and its pastors really is when National Catholic Reporter rebuffed my attempts to have them delve into my story, and when one of its top staff members told me what happened to me in the diocese of Charlotte is so common —there are so many stories of Catholic institutions treating gay folks the way Belmont Abbey College and the Charlotte diocese treated me — that my story is not newsworthy.

(You all do realize you're reading the work of a real nobody here, don't you? Not even the "official" or mainline groups advocating for inclusion of gay people in the Catholic church want to touch my story, my work, even this blog, with a ten-foot pole. They're more interested in putting forward spokespersons closer to the cultural mainstream than some wild, uncontrollable person living in a backwater like Little Rock, Arkansas. Even when I link to their sites in my blog list, they conspicuously omit this blog from their list of recommended blogs dealing with Catholic and gay issues.

I'm not a somebody. There are approved voices. And then there's my voice. Caveat emptor: the voice to which you're listening here is decidedly not approved by most somebodies in the world — not even by the mainline groups working within the Catholic church to obtain a hearing for gay voices.)

I say this to preface the following excerpt from the first letter I wrote to Bishop Curlin in March 1995 on the feast of St. Benedict. I really don't want to bore readers with details of my own story, and will welcome feedback about whether you think I'm beating a dead horse in posting any more of these excerpts from my letters to Bishop Curlin. I've thought to do so now, as I explained yesterday, because of what just erupted in the diocese of Charlotte.

In this first letter to the bishop of Charlotte, I tell him I had hesitated to contact him and tell him my story for the following reason:

I have hesitated to tell you or other church officials my story for a reason that might sound strange, but is nonetheless compelling to me. This is that my experience with Belmont Abbey has been very scarring, in terms of what I have come to expect from the church. At present, my ties to the church feel so tenuous, and my hope for justice within the church for myself and others in my situation is so small, that I simply hesitate to risk having that hope destroyed by telling my story, and so exposing myself in a very stark way, with the possibility that, after all, I will not be heard.  

I realized, in other words, that one distinct possibility of my seeking to obtain a hearing from the chief pastor of my local diocese was that he would simply turn a deaf ear to my request for a hearing, as the abbot of Belmont Abbey, Oscar Burnett, had already done. I realized that I was exposing myself to more rebuff, more pain, more signals that I and my human life don't count, are meaningless in the eyes of the shepherds of the Catholic flock, by writing to tell a bishop my story and to ask to meet with him. And so I had hesitated to contact Bishop Curlin.

I also preface my telling of my story in this March 1995 letter to Bishop Curlin by noting that I recognize that I know only my part of the story, and that I realize my account is a partial account, and I do not want to impugn any college official or monk of Belmont Abbey in telling my story. I say that if I have in any way misjudged or misunderstood their behavior, I hope they'll extend forgiveness to me.

And here's the letter's conclusion, which addresses the question Agni asked me yesterday:

The two years since I left the college have been brutal. I have many anguished, unanswered questions about what has been done to me.   
The church teaches that people have a right to work. Yet, when I worked hard and excelled at my work, I was fired without a reason, and without any recourse.   
The church teaches that people have a right to health care. Because I have never earned a large salary, when I left the college, I had no funds to fall back on, and could not buy health coverage. I have been without health coverage for two years; this has meant that, even when I feel I need health care, I do not seek it. I live with great anxiety about what would happen if I became seriously ill. 
I have also been unable to find another job. To me, it seems that, just as my career had begun to blossom, it has been ended. I do not understand why. From my viewpoint, when I sought an explanation from Abbot Oscar, he treated me as if I had behaved in some outrageously wrong fashion, and as if I ought to know why I was being punished. The fact that I do not know what my infraction was makes it all the more difficult to bear such treatment. 
In the final analysis, though the loss of a job, of a salary, of health care coverage, and all the attendant anxieties and humiliations that accompany these events have been exceedingly destructive for me, what has been most destructive of all has been my experience with Abbot Oscar and various other monks of Belmont Abbey. I chose to become Catholic when I was in high school, in 1967. This was not an easy choice to make. It put me at odds with my family, to such an extent that my father forbade me to become Catholic and punished me very harshly for a year before he would permit me to take this step. 
What drew me to the church was the Eucharist. As a Southern Baptist, I had been brought up to see Jesus as a familiar and faithful friend. To me, the Eucharist represented the ultimate familiarity with Jesus: to be able to commune with him in such a way that he drew me into himself, gave himself to me as food....This, above all, brought me to the church. 
With the help of God's grace, I remained a faithful Catholic from that time until I came to Belmont Abbey. I must honestly say that the church has often disappointed me, and made me feel less than welcome. But I have struggled along with those feelings, because underneath everything in my life has been the sense of divine calling. It is God, after all, for whom we live, and to whom we must answer; God is the One in whom we place our faith, not in the church itself. 
After my experience at Belmont Abbey, I find myself unable to break eucharistic bread with the Christian community, and this is painful in the extreme for me. The Belmont Abbey experience has been the breaking point for me, not because the church has let me down or disappointed me, but because (as it appears to me) the church community in which I had sought a home at Belmont Abbey savaged me, lied to me, demonized me, and took away my livelihood without any explanation.  
When I think of Eucharist, I think of a book that has been very influential in the development of my spirituality, one I have taught in classes. This is Monika Hellwig's The Eucharist and the Hunger of the World. As I am sure you know, Hellwig shows how the Eucharist is connected, as a meal, to all the hungers people experience in the world, including the hunger for real bread, for jobs, for health care, etc.   
After what Belmont Abbey did to me, it simply seems false for me to break eucharistic bread with a church that can rob me of my daily bread, and not provide a reason for this robbery. To approach the eucharistic table when the same church that bids me take that bread has taken my daily bread away simply seems blasphemous to me. My very regard for the Eucharist forbids me to partake of it, given what I experienced at Belmont Abbey. Painful as it is to refrain from receiving the Eucharist, I simply find myself unable to receive communion now; I feel that, in doing so, I would be admitting that the meal is merely symbolic, since all the other meanings of the meal have been violated in my experience with Belmont Abbey. 
As a result, since Easter, 1994, I have stopped going to Eucharist. When I did so after I left Belmont Abbey and up to that Easter, I increasingly felt a horrible tug-of-war inside.  I wanted desperately to receive communion. Yet I simply could not permit myself to do so. Stopping going to Mass has been the only way to stop the tug-of-war. 
What hurts very much is that I have sought to communicate this experience to both Abbot Oscar and Fr. Placid [i.e., the current abbot of Belmont Abbey], in various ways, and have been rebuffed by both. To me, sadly, this lack of response to such a heartfelt, anguished cry for reconciliation is scandalous, in the biblical sense. It is a stumbling-block to my faith (and, I believe, to the faith of others; I heard my next-door neighbor tell a priest recently that he, too, has stopped attending liturgy because he is so angry at what Belmont Abbey did to me). 
I risk much in telling you my story, Bishop Curlin. My faith in the church has been very much impaired, as a result of my experience here. I believe in God — I do not see how I can live without doing that—but my faith in God has taken on more and more the quality of anguish that one meets in the Psalms. How can God permit such injustices? I am only one among many who cry out for justice; the hunger of others is much greater than mine, much more actual. Where is God, while children starve?   
Such questions grow starker and starker for me. I would like to look to the church for answers. But my experience at Belmont Abbey has shown me a church that appears to be deaf to the cries of the poor and the oppressed. I do not know how to relate to such a church. I do not know how to find a home there. 
Thank you for listening to what is a long and painful story. If you wish to discuss it with me at any point, I would be willing to do so.

And so it goes: as I say, Bishop Curlin refused my repeated request over a period of years to meet with him and talk about how my brutal experience at the hands of a Catholic institution had shattered my faith in the institution, if not in God. He has never seen my face. He did not ever respond to any one of my letters, or acknowledge receipt of them. 

And I apologize to readers for burdening you with all of these details, if I am, indeed, beating a dead horse in telling parts of this story over again here, and in sharing excerpts from my unacknowledged letters to Bishop Curlin. I had thought to do so because all of this does seem to me eerily pertinent to right now — pertinent to the story of a diocese in which the officials at the diocesan Catholic school could, years down the road, invite a speaker to address students there, who has told students that masturbation and pornography turn people gay, and that gay men are the product of absent fathers. 

Producing an uproar among some students of the school, and among parents and alumni . . . . 

I find the graphic at the head of the posting used at many websites discussing the global food crisis, but don't find at any of these sites an indication of its source.

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