Thursday, October 29, 2015

Readers Write and I Respond: "The Whole Idea of Ordinary Church Gives Me the Hives" and "The Walls Are the Problem: They Enclose, Hamper, Restrict Conversations"

In what follows, I want to catch up on some "personal" sharing — to pick up threads of previous discussions that have been left dangling due to my lack of time to pick them up as we were traveling recently. I also want to tell you that I'll be away from blogging again for the coming two weeks. More about that in a moment . . . .

The threads that I want to pick up today: 1) our discussion of the religious transition in Steve's and my life right now, 2) and our discussion of the question of my writing some kind of book encapsulating our experience of being discarded as Catholic theologians (and as Catholics, period) by the powers that be in the church, while "liberal" Catholics we had expected to stand in solidarity with us stood aside in complete silence. And continue to do that . . . .

I really don't want to bore you with details about Steve's and my personal life. On the other hand, I began this blog with the notion of sharing our spiritual journey with you, and being as honest as I know how to be about the details of the journey as I live out loud in this blog space.

If any single thing has encouraged me to continue blogging, it's the fact that many different kinds of people tell me, both in the comboxes here and by contacting me personally, that you, too, are on a similar spiritual journey, and you find it helpful for me to talk honestly about my own journey (shared with Steve). I was deeply grateful to all of you who responded to my posting about the religious transition in our lives right now, as we finally, decisively face the fact that the Catholic church as it's currently configured simply does not value, welcome, want, or care about its LGBT members, and if those members want a full and rich religious-spiritual life, they'd be well-advised to look elsewhere.

I particularly appreciate those of you who shared aspects of your own intersecting spiritual journey in the comments you left me in response to that posting. People have also recently emailed me to talk about that posting, and have left comments on my Facebook page.

I thought that I might share with you today my responses to some of those emails and to the Facebook posting. The latter first: a Facebook friend who noticed that I had posted some jocular things about the fact that I was recently identified by someone (in broad but unmistakable terms) as a crazy witch wanted to know how I view neo-pagans like her. She tells me that she has a strong affection for the goddess Brigid. And she wants to know if I approach matters like this out of my Catholic affiliation.

My reply to this Facebook friend:

I think "recovering Catholic" might be the most appropriate way to describe me, J. Please don't think that my intent is to poke fun at Wiccans or neo-pagans. I have a healthy respect for both religious traditions. I have also always had a soft spot in my heart for Brigid, since my mother intended to give me that name if I had been female — after her great-grandmother. We have a wonderful painting of Brigid in our dining room, and a Brigid's cross from Ireland hanging by our front door. As you know, it's a pagan symbol pre-dating the introduction of Christianity to Ireland. I've paired it with a carving of a green man (a replica from an English church), and wanted both by the front door to help watch over the entrance to the house. 
I think it's downright crazy for the religious traditions of the world not to view each other as paths to the divine. The claim that any single tradition owns the pathway implies that the divine can be owned — named, controlled, limited by human conditions. 
The divine (or whatever we want to call that creative energy at the center of the web of existence) wouldn't be the divine if it were owned, controlled, limited, answering to the names we give to it. So it seems to me.

The following is my response to a cherished friend who has given me very significant religious-spiritual counsel by email, and who has had a journey similar to mine and Steve's, vis-a-vis the church of her family of origin. This friend has encouraged me to think of "rituals of leaving" to mark our transition from one religious community to another, and I tell her that I think that's a valuable idea, and will think seriously about it.

Then she suggests that part of the transition will involve leaving behind resentments and pain regarding the Catholic community. Here's my response: 

I think there's a kind of balancing act with the resentments and the pain, don't you? On the one hand, yes, leaving them behind is a major goal of the kind of transition through which Steve and I are now going. That transition is all about finding a peaceful, nurturing religious home for what's left of our days, and holding onto old bitterness that claims a place in our hearts and souls militates against what such a transition is all about. 
On the other hand, I think of our resentments and pain as a kind of engine for transformation — both for ourselves personally, and for our dealings with others, for our solidarity with others who live on the margins of religious communities and of society. I don't ever want to leave those things behind if this means that I stop struggling against the cruelty and injustice that treats people as we've been treated, or as women are treated in the Catholic church, or as abuse survivors are treated. I suppose the real struggle always is to transmute the resentment and pain into something useful and transformative.

And then she tells me she would miss this blog if I stopped blogging. I reply: 

Yes, if my blog has any raison d'etre any longer, it's because there are so many of us out there, so many of us journeying along our different paths that seem to converge on the horizon. So many of us feeling alone in that journey — and yet, we're not. That's what I hear when people reading the blog regularly leave comments, or write me emails about the blog.  
It's very clear to me that people who feel at home inside the walls of their own religious communities don't intend to have or to host the kind of conversations we're having at my site and others. That includes a lot of gay Catholics for whom remaining Catholic is not only still possible, but desirable. They're writing, one after the other, about what a marvel the shitstorm of the recent synod was — for LGBT folks! — and I have no clue in the world what they mean or how they can possibly be so deluded. 
This is where letting go of resentment and pain helps: I need to cut the ties with these people and their conversations, since those conversations are just not ever going to go anywhere meaningful, and I need to keep pulling open space for the conversations that mean something to me and others. The walls are the problem: they enclose, hamper, restrict conversations. They make conversation with people beyond the walls impossible. And this is the antithesis of what the spiritual life is about.

And then, when she tells me that the "whole idea of ordinary church gives me the hives," I tell her I completely agree: it does the same to me. And I explain why we've decided to accept some of the invitations from our friends to consider their church communities for our own lives — and, in particular, the invitation I discussed previously from friends who attend a local Episcopal church that's exceptionally gay-inclusive and gay-affirming: 

Still, those folks have asked and asked, invited and invited, and since the latest invitation comes right as we've been talking about some kind of transition, I feel an obligation at least to try to go with this flow and see what happens. What I may do first of all is ask our friends whether they'd recommend someone on that church's pastoral team for me to have a conversation with. I'd sort of like to feel out where the pastors themselves are pastorally. Where the local Episcopal bishop is, I know, and I feel very simpatico on that front. 
When I was dean at [an historically black United Methodist school], a member of our English faculty died of AIDS. The treatment he got from that United Methodist school was barbaric. As he was dying, in the final weeks of his life, the college cancelled his health insurance, so that he had to spend his final weeks anguishing about paying for the palliative hospice care he was receiving, and with his family begging me to try to get the college to relent. I tried. They would not budge. There was deep homophobia combined with racism (he was a white man) in their response. 
But my point in telling you this: the Episcopal bishop presided at the funeral of this faculty member, and I will never forget his kindness, the sermon he preached, the way he honored a human being who had been so dishonored by the church-based school in which he had taught for years, and by so many people around him, because he was gay and because he had AIDS. I had had conversations with this bishop before that time, and he always impressed me in those conversations as a good man, but this funeral really told me about his mettle.

And to another friend who emailed me in response to my posting about our religious transition, telling me she, too, has been attending a local Episcopal church (she was raised Catholic), but is inclined towards a house-church community, I write, 

I really like your idea of starting a house church. I've toyed with that idea, but doubt I have the kind of organizational skills to make it work. I do have a friend who is an ordained Presbyterian minister, and who spent most of her academic career teaching in a Methodist seminary, who has told me that for most of her church life, she has found going to any church at all simply a dismal experience. So she and her husband have been part of a house church community in their area, and for her, that's ideal. She can't imagine church in any other way. 
There are not a lot of options in our area, where conservative evangelicals are the huge majority, and where Catholics once were an alternative to that mindset, but have increasingly coalesced with it under the guidance of bishops appointed during the JPII-BXVI era. Episcopalians are definitely an alternative, since their last two bishops have been outspoken in defending gay rights, and so there's a kind of institutional commitment in the Episcopal church in our area, at least, to gay rights, which draws many folks leaving conservative evangelical churches due to their hostility to gay folks. It also draws, needless to say, a lot of gay folks, including the whole chapter of Dignity in Little Rock, which converted to Episcopalianism en masse after Ratzinger issued his infamous Halloween letter calling gay folks disordered, and ordered Catholic parishes and institutions to stop hosting Dignity or other gay ministry groups.

Finally, to another friend of mine who has found a gay-affirming Catholic parish, who is a theologian with a very distinguished career in the field of spirituality, and who emailed me recently to say that, after this synod, he's thinking of looking at Episcopal churches in his area, though he is leery, given how conservative some Anglican-Episcopalian dioceses are: 

You're right that many Anglican-Episcopalian dioceses are dismal. Ours in Arkansas is a rarely good alternative to the right-wing evangelical culture, largely because this bishop and his predecessor have both been outspoken advocates of gay rights. 

To sum up: if you look at the photo of me at the head of this blog, which Steve took when we were making a pilgrimage to various shrines across southern England and Wales (Christian shrines that, in a number of cases, have their roots in pre-Christian "pagan" shrines), you'll see that I'm walking both towards something and away from something. You see my back. I'm actually walking to one of those very shrines, the shrine of St. Non in Pembrokeshire, that I suspect has pre-Christian "pagan" roots.

But I'm walking away, too. This is how I have always seen the spiritual life — as a journey towards the numinous unknown, the mysterium tremendum et fascinans — and away from certainties. Away from walls.

I don't see any church or any religious community as the incarnation of the reign of God. In my view, if church has any meaning at all, it's to point to the reign of God that beckons us from the final horizon of history. And so I think through these questions of religious tradition in the final period of Steve's and my life strategically, as it were, seeking some religious community that, while I know it will be far from perfect, will not be actively hostile and actively harmful in the way our Catholic religious community has chosen to be towards us and others like us at this point in history.

I'm very ashamed for Commonweal and its readers that this Catholic journal chooses to frame the discussion of the recent synod as a discussion about the dashed, unrealistic hopes of LGBT Catholics who had bizarrely assumed the synod would bless same-sex marriage. This is, of course, not in the least the sticking point for us who are LGBT, following the synod. 

I know of no gay Catholics who expected this synod to bless same-sex unions. I know of many gay (and lesbian, bisexual, transgender) Catholics who did, however, expect a synod about the theme of creating a welcoming church would issue in, as a bare minimum, a statement that we are welcome in the Catholic church.

We are devastated that a synod can take place to discuss the theme of creating a welcoming church, and then reiterate to us who are LGBT that we are not worthy of hearing the word "welcome." And then the Commonweal editorial that opens with this false, embarrassing framing about how the synod chose to deal with LGBT Catholics delivers another shameful kick to LGBT human beings as it ends:  "The questions surrounding Humanae vitae, the celibate priesthood, and the role of women in the church are all areas where the church can learn from those in the trenches and in the pews."

Gay people don't exist for Commonweal, you see. There are women, priests, heterosexually married couples struggling with the issue of contraception. But the gays are just not there. They're not in the pews or in the trenches. The church cannot learn from those who are not there.

There's nothing new about this approach to the LGBT community on the part of Commonweal or of National Catholic Reporter, both of which have totally shut out the story of Krzysztof Charamsa in the past several days, as the secular media discuss Charamsa's story and his recent letter to the pope in which he states that Catholic officials have deliberately made life a living hell for LGBT people around the world.

The message is clear to me, and I'm ready to accept it: in our church, Commonweal and NCR, representing the best and brightest of the Catholic laity in the U.S., insist, you don't exist. We who are comfortably ensconced in our church can natter on about listening to those in the pews and in the trenches, about being merciful and welcoming, while we pretend that none of this nattering applies to you folks, because you're not there. We don't intend to see you, treat you as fellow human beings, act as if you and your lives count.

I'm embarrassed for Catholics who operate at such a grade-school level of moral development, while represening the best their church has to offer right now. I hear their message to me, and I'm accepting it and moving on. (Since this posting has gone on at length, I'll break it into two now and tell you about my plans for the next two weeks as I mention the book project.)

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