Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Lent and the Tears of Things: A Meditation on Mourning and the Spiritual Life

Sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt . . . .

I have been struggling with sadness lately. I continue struggling with sadness as Lent begins. I’d like to reflect on sadness today as a theme for this season of preparing the heart to receive more of God.

The particulars of the grief are perhaps not so important as its facticity: its simply being there as a universal human experience, with which we must cope and of which we struggle to make sense in our spiritual journeys. One root of my current bout with melancholy is our discovery that one of the two pups we rescued through an animal shelter in the winter before last is apparently seriously ill.

Our two little brother dogs have never been separated from the time of their birth, so, of course, I worry about the pain inflicted on one if the other dies. I also struggle with watching a tiny, innocent creature (he’s not yet even two years old) so full of life and mirth begin to endure the torments of cancer. The mother inside me wants to hold him, cuddle him, and croon away the pain.

I lie down to nap, and wake up with that line from Jonah ringing in my head—the divine statement near the end of the book, in which God tells Jonah that if Jonah grieves for the gourd vine that has wilted above his head, Jonah’s grief is but a shadow of the compassion God feels for all the citizens of Nineveh whom Jonah scorns. And for their animals . . . .

I have always loved that affirmation of a divine compassion that encompasses our brothers and sisters in the animal kingdom, over whom we have long thought it our right to exercise lordship. If God’s love is so broad, then surely our hearts need to expand to encompass more of those we exclude from the scope of our compassion.

I’m morose these days, too, after I have finally completed my work on the first stage of a project I’ve discussed on this blog before. I’ve just written an article that will, I hope, eventually turn into something more substantial. It sketches the history of a branch of my family that crossed the color line in 19th-century Mississippi and Arkansas—the story of a white planter who lived his entire adult life, almost fifty years, in a marital relationship with a woman of color by whom he had six children whom he acknowledged and to whom he left his property.

I say “marital relationship” because this couple could not marry, of course, in the 19th-century South. Their being together, their having a family together—their very love for each other—was regarded by the vast majority of their fellow citizens as immoral, disgusting, illegal, something to be scorned and outlawed. The fact that they were able to maintain a family life at all under the conditions with which they coped is remarkable in itself—a manifestation of grace, it seems to me.

As Arkansas moved towards enacting legislation (it passed in February 1859) that demanded the immediate expulsion of all free people of color in the state—if they did not leave, they would be returned to slavery—these parents managed to get their children north, to see them well educated and set up on farms. All three of the children (three had died young) married into white families with strong abolitionist ties, with strong ties to churches that supported abolition. One of these families was closely related to Harriet Beecher Stowe. The families of these children of color crossed the color line from that point forward.

But they suffered. The oldest son, who had married first and who lived apart from his siblings—who continue to appear on the census as mulattoes in some decades, while he is always white on the census from the time of his marriage to a white woman—did not return home for over thirty years. He did so finally in the months before his mother’s death. He could not do so, as a biracial man living white in the North. He was susceptible to violence if he returned South.

The letters of his parents are full of laments over the years, as they endure separation from their children: sunt lacrimae rerum. They want to see their children. They tell their children of their love for their sons and daughter. The letters state over and over that their mother sighs for her children who have been exiled from her.

When the father of the family died in 1883, he left his considerable landholdings in south Arkansas to his youngest son. That son returned from the north to live on and farm the land. And in 1899, as he was riding horseback on his land, he was shot in the back, killed instantly. A mysterious black man whom the newspapers call “General Washington” was charged with the crime.

It is hard not to believe this was a lynching in which a hapless black man was framed for the terrorist murder of a man of color whose white father had dared to leave land to him, and who returned from the north to live on that land. In the week in which he was murdered, there were multiple lynchings of black men all across south Arkansas. The 1890s were a reign of terror for black citizens—unbelievable horror—in which the state enacted laws to disenfranchise black voters, to return African-American citizens to quasi-servitude.

And as this happened at the governmental level, lynchings escalated—violence as a tool of repression designed to put black folks back into “their places” as government and law created a legislative framework for such humiliation, for the denial of rights and of justice. Reports from this decade say that hundreds of black citizens were fleeing the state, taking steamboats north as quickly as they could to escape the reign of terror.

And so I feel a well of sadness inside me as I think about this story. I have pictures of these people. Their eyes are sad—the eyes of the children sent north. The eyes of the daughter, in particular, are pools of sadness. Her letters constantly employ the word: sad, she writes, heavily underscoring the word.

It is painful to know that your humanity is the same humanity others enjoy and celebrate, but is not regarded by others as humanity equal to theirs. It is painful to be told that a part of yourself, of your God-given nature, is unacceptable, is beyond the pale, is to be parsed and controlled and put into its place by laws.

It is painful to know that these attitudes not merely exist, that they are not only enshrined in longstanding custom, but that they have the force of law. It is exceedingly painful to think that a majority of your fellow citizens not only agree with your dehumanization, but that they believe that their majority opinion captures the divine mind: that might makes right.

It is painful to me to know that these racial attitudes have persisted into my own lifetime, to discover how little I know of the draconian history of my own state—in its gory, ugly, inescapable details—vis-à-vis treatment of a racial minority by the majority to which I belong.

It is also exceedingly painful to live my own version of the preceding story, as a gay man whose humanity is demeaned and even denied by large numbers of my fellow citizens. Who put the name of God into their mouths as they legislate against me—as my foreparents did when they legislated against people of color and their families and their loves. It is painful to be told that majority rule makes for right when the decisions of the majority clearly contravene the most elementary canons of human decency—not to mention the most fundamental moral insights of the world’s religions.

I have experienced a particular kind of pain—a kind that runs across the skin and scalds it—in the past few days as I have read comments about gay lives by the arbiters of taste, the knowledge class, on centrist Catholic blogs. I cannot believe what I am reading. I cannot believe that educated people can say such things, and apparently not think seriously, ever, about the effects of their words on real human beings who are their brothers and sisters in Christ.

It is painful in the extreme to read discussions of the theology of James Alison that are prefaced by considerations of his “errors”—when no such preface ever finds its way into the discussions of the theology of any non-gay theologians, of any ideological stripe, on these blogs. It is painful (and ludicrous) to read that Alison’s “error” lies in his attempt to combine the gospels with bacchanals. James Alison. Bacchanals.

Can someone making such an absurd comment even have read Alison’s complex, thoughtful, anything-but-bacchanalian theology? Why would anyone's mind even go there—to the bacchanal—when they hear the name of James Alison? Why do our brothers and sisters persist in distorting our real lives to such an astonishing degree, as they entertain salacious fantasies about who we are and what we do that they would not entertain about other human beings?

Why do they not invite us in and let us talk, so that they can hear our real voices and have those fantasies decisively dispelled?

It is also exceedingly painful to read the clownish remarks of other centrist American Catholics on these blogs, in which they defend the choice of Catholic institutions to fire and/or deny rights to openly gay employees. With a straight face, these arbiters of opinion in the American Catholic church seek to argue that gay employees in Catholic institutions represent the “face” of the church to the public, and so the church has a right to enforce its moral positions by firing such persons when it chooses to do so.

I have worked at Catholic colleges in which this tawdry little argument has been advanced to justify ongoing abuse of gay employees. And those justifying it were divorced Catholics who were dating other divorced Catholics. And in some cases they were unmarried Catholics living with other (but—all-important point—heterosexual) unmarried Catholics in an intimate relationship. And in many cases, they were Catholics who were, one had to assume, using artificial contraception, since they were not producing a child every year and a half or so.

What would have been outrageous to them—and should have been outrageous to them—the decision of their employing institution to delve into the secrets of their bedrooms, was not considered outrageous at all, when it came to gay employees. Their personal lives were off-limits. One did not, and should not, make assumptions about those personal lives that went beyond what those living these lives chose to share.

But these same advocates of Catholic morality did not choose to extend the same decency to their brothers and sisters who happened to be gay. Nothing was off-limits. The most lurid imaginings possible regarding our sex lives—our bacchanalian sex lives—were perfectly defensible, since Catholic morality, the face of the church, was at stake.

How can educated people entertain such arguments and not recognize that they are engaging in discrimination of the grossest sort? That their concerns are not about upholding Catholic sexual morality in all its intricate detail, but in excluding gay human beings from their circles?

And that’s what it’s all about, in the final analysis: exclusion, pure and simple. While the occupants of the inner circles at the center of the American Catholic church fire up their cigars to celebrate their triumphs (yes, they do talk this way, unabashedly and without a hint of awareness of what cigars mean, of their use as symbols of heterosexual male exclusion and domination), many of us stand outside in the cold, looking in. And those celebrations are, to all appearances, as shamefully unaware of our exclusion—and our existence—as I find I have been, when I examine in detail the history of racially discriminatory legislation and actions in my own home state.

In fact, to some of us, it begins to appear that the cigars and cocktails are actually in celebration of our exclusion. That the victory being toasted is a victory over us, and the heterosexual manhood being asserted is asserted at our expense.

And so Lent. And sadness. I have pondered for some years now the insights of Thomas Moore regarding the place of mourning in spiritual life. There is a wisdom in what Moore says against which I rail, but which I have to try to find ways to incorporate into my own soul-making process.

Moore notes that we skim the surface of experience, by denying the place of sadness in our lives. We do anything possible to avoid confronting our mourning. We rant and rave—and I am exceptionally good at that. We cast blame: ditto. We tell ourselves we are not sad.

Because we do not want to go there. We do not want to go to the place to which mourning takes us. We do not want to go down into those dark, chthonic depths in which the roots of sadness reside in our souls.

We do not want to die.

Lent is a time to remember that things are full of tears. A time to remember that in the midst of life, we are in death. A time to go into the depths of our own sadness and simply be there, with the sadness, with the mourning.

Because that journey to the depths is a precondition to our participation in the healing of the world. In which life and death constantly tango together, and the practical compassion that changes things in the lives of others arises out of my willingness to come to terms with the depths of sadness in my own soul.